Utilitarianism, what it’s NOT…


I really wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen one of MY students write “utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number of people”.  That isn’t what Mill means… really.

Mill wants you to do the thing that will maximize NET utility.  What does that mean, exactly???  It means that the right thing to do is that thing which provides the greatest OVERALL increase in pleasure vs. pain — all persons considered… SO, what does THAT mean???  It means that if you think about all of the benefits and costs of an action, you should do the thing that has the biggest total benefit.

Ummm… isn’t that the same thing as the greatest good for the greatest number of people?  Well… it could be.. BUT, think about that formulation carefully — because there’s an ambiguity there — the greatest good (no problem..well, not exactly, but that’s what Mill wants) — but the “greatest number of people” — hmmm.. what if the greatest overall good would benefit a small number of people?  Don’t you have to do the thing that would spread the good to more people, even IF it means NOT doing a thing that would be a huge benefit to a smaller number of people?

For example, you have two choices… you can give $1000 out, you can give that money in two ways… either give 4,000 people .25 cents each, or  one needy family $1000 to get back on their feet.  There are three people in the family, they can use that money to get into an apartment and fix their car.  Not being homeless and  having a working car to get to work is a HUGE improvement in their lives, and what would you do with .25 cents??  Would it change your life, probably not…

BUT, if you really think that Utilitarianism is the ‘greatest good for the greatest NUMBER of people’ then you have to give the money to 4,000 people instead of 3, right?  BUT, the greatest overall increase in utility (moving up the pain/pleasure scale toward pleasure) would happen if you gave the money to the family.

Thus, utilitarianism is NOT best formulated as the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Just fyi, that could easily be an exam question — now you know the answer!


1 Comment

Filed under Ethical Theory, Ethics

One response to “Utilitarianism, what it’s NOT…

  1. Ed Salava

    This is about the best way to explain how this really can not work. Thanks

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