The standardized definition of Utilitarianism is that actions are defined as being “right” or “correct” based on the ability it has to promote happiness. Something is then considered “wrong” if it creates the opposite reaction. This structure means that the ends often justify the means when seeking to create a specific result. That means if an action results in bringing happiness more than any other available alternative, then that is the acceptable choice to make.
There are three specific premises for Utilitarianism which must go under review when determining the correctness of any action taken.
- Actions are considered right only if the outcome of the decision maximizes whatever is classified as being good over what would be considered bad.
- Happiness is the only good outcome that is possible in this structure.
- If an action does not maximize happiness in some way, then it may be the incorrect choice to make – even if it is considered the moral choice.
Based on these premises, Utilitarianism suggests that happiness is always good for the individual. If you have an opportunity to increase this emotion, then you should do so because it is a core human desire. That means when each member of a group or organization is happy, then so will the entirety of that team.
The suggestion is simple: by focusing on happiness first, we will all be collectively better as a society because our focus is on how to improve ourselves. This theory does run into some practical concerns upon implementation, which is why a look at its advantages and disadvantages is so important.
List of the Advantages of Utilitarianism
1. It is a universal concept that all of us can understand.
The goal of reducing personal harm while increasing happiness is something that every person pursues at some point in their life. We don’t want to live in misery all of the time, even if pessimism is the star of every thought that we have. By creating a society which places more value on actions that bring happiness, we could create a place where there is more common ground to be found. It is a principle that applies to every culture, which means it would be possible to take one more step closer to a borderless world.
2. You don’t need to practice a religion to benefit from this process.
Utilitarianism is a secular process which can incorporate religious elements if that is what makes you happy. This practice is not trying to find salvation for your soul. It won’t dictate specific beliefs about God to ensure your inclusion. When your focus is on what makes you happy before anything else, then your spirituality is something that you can personally direct at all times. You get to pursue what has meaning in your life.
3. Utilitarianism follows democratic principles.
The fastest and fairest way to make decisions on a nationwide scale is to balance the differing interest of people through a majority vote. When there is a majority present for a vote, then the outcome is considered the “right” course of action to take. If there is not, then the measure under consideration is “wrong.” That doesn’t mean you need to agree with the outcome, but it does suggest that you must accept it.
After creating a platform which suggested that the Republicans would repeal and replace the healthcare systems put into place by the previous administration, Senator John McCain stopped his party’s top legislative priority with a “no” vote. His action created the distinction between right and wrong through the principles of Utilitarianism.
4. It uses an objective process to decide what is right or wrong.
When we make a choice, then there is always a consequence for our actions. The outcome might bring something positive, something negative, or a mixture of the two. It is through these measurements that Utilitarianism seeks to define morality. By recognizing the outcomes that bring happiness more often, we can all work toward an independent and objective way to determine what is right and wrong on a personal level.
Once we make this decision through the data we collect about ourselves, it becomes possible to join with others who come to similar conclusions. Although this process would likely change the way we think about building communities around the world, it could also help to prevent the potential free-for-all of subjectivity that would likely happen if everyone was suddenly permitted to do their own thing.
5. This process is one that is very easy to use.
We learn very quickly in our childhood about the things that we believe are right or wrong. You only touch a hot burner on the stove once, right? When we begin to compare the positive effects of our actions with the negative ones, then we can make logical choices about what our next actions will be. Even though someone with an outlier moral code might make different choices, the vast majority of people would look for ways to improve happiness that are simple, straightforward, and inclusive.
We know this advantage is possible because the principles of Utilitarianism always direct individuals toward the greatest good possible. If you cannot achieve success without bring harm to others, is that really the best outcome? There will always be extreme examples where this process does not work adequately, but it does create a lot of opportunity when applied to the finer details of life’s experiences.
6. Utilitarianism works with our natural intuition.
Although Utilitarianism sometimes struggles when approaching the issue of harm from an emotional perspective, it does work well with our natural intuition to not harm the people that we care about each day. The average person does not go walking downtown with a baseball bat, striking people with it because they think it is a fun activity. Part of the human condition is to go about life without creating physical harm to others, partially because such a decision could also create harm in our lives too. We must evaluate all potential consequences when looking at how the ends justify the means, creating more of a logical approach to each decision than some people might realize on their first approach to this theory.
7. It bases everything on the concept of happiness.
Let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be happy in life? Many of the choices that we make each day are a reflection of our desire to experience this emotion. We go to work because it allows us to have the life that we want. You are choosing to stay in a relationship with your significant other because being with that person makes you happier and better than if you were to be alone. Because there is a given intrinsic value to this emotional state, pursuing activities and choices which encourage it to be present at its maximum levels can make for a better life and society.
List of the Disadvantages of Utilitarianism
1. Society does not solely focus on happiness when making choices.
Utilitarianism suggests that the only item of intrinsic worth is happiness, but there are also other commodities that are worth considering. Having life is something that provides value to people. Being free to make your own choices has a certain worth that shouldn’t be ignored. When love is in the picture, the relationships that cause this emotional reaction are also present.
When we look at Utilitarianism, all of these other “goods” take a secondary value to happiness. You might love your spouse, but if they make you unhappy one day for any reason, then the moral outcome is to correct that situation by the fastest, easiest means possible. That could mean divorce, separation, or worse instead of taking the time to hammer out your issues. Over 70% of people who describe their marriage as being unhappy will have a different perspective in five years or less.
2. The ends never really justify the means when considering happiness.
Sydney Elizabeth was only eight years old when she tragically passed away because of complications from an E. coli infection. A 3-year-old girl was the recipient of her heart, which is something that Sydney’s parents will always treasure. She is remembered as being a caring, vibrant soul who never settled for anything less than being the best.
Under the teachings of Utilitarianism, the just outcome would be to kill healthy people to distribute their organs to those who are waiting on the transplant list. That’s because the good of the many (as defined by happiness) always outweighs the good of the few.
3. Outcomes are unpredictable when dealing with the future.
Utilitarianism wants people to look into the future, and then predict today what will bring them a maximum level of happiness today. Because nothing beyond the present moment is guaranteed, there is no feasible way to implement the concepts of this theory. You are always working from an assumption.
We all know that the person we were 10 years ago is very different than the individual you are today. George (we changed his name) is a prime example of this. In 2009, he was working full-time as a vocational supervisor for people with development disabilities. He owned a house with his wife, played basketball at church once per week, and sang in a band with a regular weekend gig.
Now George lives in a different community, has four kids, works full-time from home, and is a martial arts coach. Trying to base ethical choices on what his future became based on his life 10 years ago would have been impossible. The same is true for the next decade as well.
4. Happiness is something that is subjective.
It is impossible to assign a specific value to the amount of happiness that something provides you at any given time. Every activity that you decide to try will always bring a high level of joy if you love your first experience with it. Each time you repeat that activity, the amount of happiness you have could be less.
Imagine that you are playing a video game like Overwatch right now. When you win your match, then you feel happy. If you lose, then you might feel frustrated. Utilitarianism says that the moment you stop experiencing happiness is the time when you must shift gears. Does it make sense to abandon everything you do the instant that happiness is no longer maximized?
Even being intimate with your significant other can have varying levels of satisfaction. Knowing what will make you happy at any given moment is impossible to predict. That means Utilitarianism provides immeasurable outcomes.
5. It forces you to rely on everyone else following the same moral code.
If you abandon the idea of rules, regulations, and laws in society to pursue happiness, then you are forced to rely on the choices that others make to not bring harm into your life. A lot of people will say that they believe humans are inherently good, but the reality is that most people will choose to do something against their moral character if they believe that they can get away with that choice.
74% of men say that they would cheat on their significant other if they knew for certain that they could get away with the activity. 68% of women say that they would willingly have an affair as well. When there is the absence of a deterrent for any activity, then people are more likely to make the choice to pursue it. That is why Utilitarianism might bring happiness to some, but it causes a lot of harm in its wake.
6. Utilitarianism doesn’t focus on the act itself to form judgments.
The one disadvantage that Utilitarianism cannot escape is that it focuses on the outcome of a choice instead of the act itself. There is no moral judgment on the actual actions that a person chooses to take. The only consequences occur if the outcome that happens does not maximize happiness in some way. According to research data published by Psychology Today from work in 2014, 75% of the participants said that if they had ever raped someone, their answer was a firm “no.”
When they were asked if they had ever held someone down to coerce them into having sex, the answers were different. This outcome is just a small taste of what life under Utilitarianism would be like. If the actions of a person result in a maximum amount of happiness, then it doesn’t matter if other people think it is wrong. It is still a moral choice to pursue.
7. You cannot measure happiness in tangible ways.
Have you ever tried to make the bell ring on a high striker game at an arcade, midway, or fair? When you strike the plate with a hammer, then what you see is a puck rising high enough to ring a bell at the top of the device. This outcome indicates that your strength’s measurement is strong enough to be successful.
When we try to measure happiness, there isn’t a definitive measurement that can be used because your emotional reactions are different in every situation. Sonja Lyubomirsky and Heidi Lepper developed an assessment in 1999 that can help some people make an overall judgment about how happy they are in the present moment, but even this tool is based upon the creator’s criteria for it. That is why Utilitarianism struggles to succeed. It may offer a valid proposition, but there is no way to measure it accurately using current systems.
8. It would allow the majority of society to always dictate outcomes.
The reason why we vote in elections is because the politicians or ideas that are on the ballot will either pass or fail based on what the majority wants. We use this system for voting because the information it provides represents what the will of the people happen to be. If history has taught us anything, it is that when people are in a majority, then they will use their force to control the will of the minority in ways that are not always ethical or moral. It wasn’t that long ago when women couldn’t vote, marrying someone of a different skin color was illegal, and you could be stoned to death for adultery in many countries.
Utilitarianism would allow the majority to have tyranny over all aspects of society. If most people felt like pedophilia was acceptable and normal, then it would justify any laws or regulations that would permit that behavior – even though there is a clear moral wrongness about such a choice.
Conclusion of the Utilitarianism Advantages and Disadvantages
Utilitarianism will ultimately fail because it confuses what is popular in the present for what is morally right. What we have learned throughout history is that there are some choices that are always morally wrong, no matter how many ways you try to spin the idea.
Can you imagine a world where the Holocaust would be considered a morally correct decision? Or living in a nation that not only celebrated the murdering spree of Ted Bundy, but encouraged others to participate in such activities as they saw fit?
The advantages and disadvantages of Utilitarianism prove that happiness cannot be the only part of the foundation upon which we make decisions. There are times in life when the correct decision is the one which only you are willing to make. Humanity would lose its integrity if it decided to follow this way of life, even if there are some notable benefits to consider. It is clear that any strengths are clearly outweighed by the weaknesses of this theory.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.