3 Utilitarianism: Making the World a Better Place


Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

• Explain the basic idea of the principle of utility or the greatest happiness principle.

• Explain consequentialist moral theory and what makes utilitarianism a form of consequentialism.

• Identify utilitarian moral arguments.

• Construct a utilitarian moral argument that applies to a concrete moral problem.

• Identify common misconceptions about utilitarianism and explain why they are incorrect.

• Explain the notions of impartiality, objectivity, and adaptability as they relate to utilitarianism.

• Explain the general objections to utilitarianism.

• Describe rule utilitarianism and explain how it differs from act utilitarianism.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you,—will invite you to add something to the pleasure of others,—or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom,—while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful flowers of peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul.

—Jeremy Bentham

3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism In Chapter 1, we discussed what morality is in a general sense and how to approach moral problems. In Chapter 2, we examined some challenges to the idea that our common moral values and beliefs are objective and unconditional. We considered whether they are simply a reflection of the beliefs of a certain culture or individuals. Or maybe they are mere conven- tions designed to maintain social order and prevent people—especially society’s stronger members—from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others, but which we would be better off defying if possible. Each of these views is quite common, yet we questioned whether they are as plausible as they might appear to be. There are a number of reasons to doubt that they can adequately make sense of the role morality plays in our individual and collective lives or whether they are rationally consistent views.

This does not mean that these views are necessarily wrong, of course. However, it gives us a compelling reason to closely examine the ways that philosophers have tried to provide an objective account of what morality is and how we should distinguish right from wrong . One of the most common and familiar of these theories is utilitarianism. In its most general sense, utilitarianism is the theory that morally right actions, laws, or policies are those whose consequences have the greatest positive value and least negative value compared to available alternatives.

Example Scenarios Before exploring utilitarianism in detail, consider the following moral scenarios:

1. Amber is in a long-term relationship that lately has not been going well. She has struck up a friendship with an attractive, funny, and caring coworker, and one day he tells her that he would like to start seeing her outside of work. She knows that if she starts seeing him she would be cheating on her boyfriend, but she is tempted by the proposition and wonders whether it would be wrong to do so.

2. Charlie and Davy, 8-year-old and 5-year-old brothers, were out shopping with their mother. Shopping trips almost inevitably involve them begging for a toy, but their mother always says no. On this trip, however, they were particularly well behaved and didn’t say a word when they passed the toy aisle. Impressed and pleased, their mother, on a whim, decided to buy them a small toy to share. When they got home,

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Charlie didn’t want share the toy with his brother. His mother wonders how she can explain to Charlie that sharing is the right thing to do.

3. Rachel leads the marketing team for a children’s clothing company. Her bosses want to pursue a new, edgier marketing strategy that involves putting their female child models into more sexually suggestive outfits and poses. Rachel worries that this borders on exploitation of the models, promotes an inappropriate sexualization of children, and could be demeaning to women in general. Her bosses dismiss these concerns and make it clear that if she refuses to pursue the strategy, she will be let go and replaced with someone who will. The job market has been unforgiving lately, and Rachel is a single mother raising three kids, so she wonders whether the proposed marketing strategy is wrong after all—and even if it is, whether she has a responsibility to refuse to go along with it.

4. For 3 years Bill and Jodi have been saving up for a vacation to Tahiti. They both work hard, rarely take time off, and desperately need an extended time of rest and relax- ation. They have finally saved enough to take time off work, fly to Tahiti, and spend several weeks relaxing on the beach. However, as they are booking their vacation, they learn that a devastating tornado has swept through Oklahoma, wrecking sev- eral towns and leaving their inhabitants homeless and desperate. They consider the amount of money they have saved up for their vacation and wonder whether they ought to use it to help the tornado victims instead.

In each of these cases, there is the question of which choice would be moral, but there is also the question of why one choice would be morally better than another. In other words, differ- ent people might agree that a certain response is morally right or wrong, but they may have different reasons for coming to that conclusion.

Let’s consider a few possible answers, along with their reasons:

Case 1:

• Amber shouldn’t cheat on her boyfriend because he is bound to find out, and when he does, it will really hurt him.

• Amber shouldn’t cheat on her boyfriend because he is bound to find out, and when he does, he might become angry and physically harm her.

• Amber should start dating this new guy because it will make her much happier than she is now.

Case 2:

• Charlie should share the toy with Davy because it will make Davy happy, and there will be two happy kids rather than just one.

• Charlie should share the toy with Davy so that when Davy has something Charlie wants, he’ll be more likely to share it.

• Charlie should share the toy with Davy because if he does not, he will be punished.

Case 3:

• Rachel should refuse to pursue the marketing strategy because it is harmful to the models, other children, and women.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

• Rachel should accept the marketing strategy because it will allow her to continue to provide for her children.

• Rachel should accept the marketing strategy because it will likely lead to increased profits for the company as well as a raise and promotion for herself.

Case 4:

• Bill and Jodi should spend their time and money helping the tornado victims rather than going to Tahiti, because the good they could do for the ravaged communities is much greater than the pleasure they would receive from basking in the sun for a few weeks.

• Bill and Jodi should spend their time and money helping the tornado victims rather than going to Tahiti, because if they don’t, they will be plagued with guilt throughout their vacation.

• Bill and Jodi should spend their time and money going to Tahiti, because in doing so they will be able to work more efficiently when they return, which will result in greater income and thus greater resources to help future victims of natural disasters.

One thing to notice about each of the reasons provided for the best decision is that it appeals to the results of one choice or another. What will be the outcome of pursuing a relationship, sharing a toy, pursuing a certain marketing strategy, or spending one’s time and money in a certain way? In other words, what are the consequences of the different available options?

You might be thinking that there are a number of choices that don’t simply appeal to conse- quences, such as the idea that it is simply wrong to betray someone’s trust, that we should not be selfish or greedy, that we should never sexually objectify children, that we should maintain our integrity, or that we should always strive to be compassionate toward people in need. These reasons appeal to considerations that are independent of the results of different actions—considerations such as our rights and duties or important virtues that we ought to cultivate and exercise.

Utilitarians will usually recognize the importance of most of these other reasons. But for the utilitarian, what is most fundamental and essential to morality are the consequences of our actions and, in particular, whether the overall positive consequences outweigh the negative ones.

Elements of a Utilitarian Theory To flesh out this idea, let’s review an important point from Chapter 1.

If we regard human actions as consisting of three aspects, then the main difference between the major moral theories has to do with which aspect the theory takes to be fundamental when it comes to moral reasoning and moral value. The three aspects of human action are:

1. The nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. The nature of the action itself. 3. The consequences of the action.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

The three moral theories can be distinguished in this way:

1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action.

2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself. 3. Consequentialist ethics focuses on the consequences of the action.

When we think about the reasons mentioned above for considering certain actions or policies as right or wrong, we note that they appeal to the positive or negative consequences, outcomes, or results of each case. The form of moral reasoning that appeals to consequences, results, or outcomes in determining whether some- thing is right or wrong is called consequen- tialist ethics (or consequentialism), and utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory.

Naturally, there are many different conse- quences to our actions, and not all of them will be valuable or morally significant. A consequentialist view will specify which of the consequences are most important when it comes to morality. For instance, some- one might be fond of polka dots and favor actions or policies that bring more polka dots into our world, but that would be an absurd basis on which to judge the moral value of someone’s actions. Or more real- istically, someone might favor people with lighter skin tones and hold that actions or policies that favor those with lighter skin over those with darker skin are best, which most people today also regard as an absurd principle even if it once had defenders.

To avoid these kinds of problems, the con- sequentialist must isolate from among the various outcomes those that will serve as the standard for moral evaluation. Polka dots and skin color cannot serve as this kind of standard—but what can? Whatever it is will have to be, like polka dots and skin color, identifiable. That is, we must be able to recognize and indicate it in a way that oth- ers can recognize as well. But unlike polka dots and skin color, it also has to be intrinsi- cally valuable (more on this in a moment).

The Basic Features of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ap- proach to moral reasoning. This approach holds that actions are morally right if they result in the best consequences relative to other possible actions. If an action results in worse consequences than another avail- able action, then it is morally wrong.

The utilitarian theory identifies the best consequences as those with the greatest overall utility.

Utility: Happiness or Well-Being When we talk about utility, we mean some measure of well-being. This is usually happiness, which is often also defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of suffering.

Utilitarianism: The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number Right actions: actions that result in the greatest overall happiness when compared with the results of alternative actions.

Wrong actions: actions that are performed when another action would have resulted in a greater overall balance of happiness and unhappiness.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Moreover, if we think back to the earlier scenarios and consider the reasons given for the different responses, they all compared results in terms of how much good or bad each action would produce. If we are going to distinguish between more or less of something, whatever we are comparing has to be measurable. So when we are distinguishing between “more of something good” or “less of something good,” we have to be able to quantify and compare dif- ferent amounts of “something good.”

Finally, there are countless things that people find “good” or “bad,” and comparing them might seem like comparing apples to oranges. It’s not enough to quantify the results of our actions; we must be able to reduce good or bad things to a common intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is the value that something has in itself, as opposed to instrumental value, which is value that something has because it brings about something good or prevents something bad. And this intrinsic value must be a common feature of the outcomes we wish to compare so as to pro- vide a standard for the comparison.

Can we identify a standard for comparing consequences that meets these criteria? Utilitar- ians identify this standard to be something called utility (hence the name utilitarianism). On this basis, the utilitarian maintains that we should act in ways that result in the most utility compared to the alternatives. But what, exactly, is utility, and does it satisfy the characteristics just described? To see how utilitarians have tried to answer this question, let’s turn to a bit of history; in particular, Jeremy Bentham’s and John Stuart Mill’s claims that utility—the ulti- mate value by which we compare the outcomes of actions—is happiness or, more specifically, pleasure and the absence of pain.

Bentham’s Utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), a British philoso- pher and the founder of utilitarianism, offered a view of value known as hedonism, which means that we whittle down all value to happiness or unhappiness, all happiness to pleasure (good) and the absence of pain (bad), and unhappiness to pain and the absence of pleasure. Doing so, he main- tained, would give us the needed basis for distin- guishing good from bad consequences. Every action or policy produces a certain amount of pleasure and pain among the various individuals affected by it, so pleasure and pain would serve as the common value. If all values reduce to pleasure and pain, and if there are no more basic goods than pleasure and no more basic bads than pain, then pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad.

Pleasure and pain, Bentham thought, can be iden- tified and measured (like we measure flour for baking). Thus, if we add up all the pleasure that’s Jeremy Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Common Standards

We have said that to meaningfully compare the value of different consequences, we have to find some kind of standard or unit of measurement common to all of the outcomes.

There is an old fairy tale that illustrates this principle:

A man and his wife have one possession, an old milking cow. Times are hard, and they decide that they have no choice but to sell the cow so they can have some money for food. As the man is leading the cow toward the market to sell, he passes by a peasant carrying a pair of chickens. “Say, that’s a fine cow you have there,” says the peasant. “I don’t suppose you would like to trade your one cow for two whole chickens.” The man thinks to himself, “Two is more than one, as everyone knows. This is a deal that can’t be passed up!” He quickly agrees and leaves the cow with the peasant, taking the two chickens instead. By and by he meets a woman selling loaves of bread, who offers him three loaves of bread in exchange for the two chickens. Again the man reasons, “Three is more than two, as everyone knows. This woman must not be very clever to be willing to take only two chickens in exchange for three loaves of bread!” So he makes the exchange and continues on his way. A while later, he comes across an old beggar with four beans spread on a blanket. “What say you exchange those three loaves of bread for these four beans?” suggests the beggar. The man thinks to himself, “It’s no wonder that he’s a beggar if he doesn’t even realize that four is more than three! I have never had such luck!” Just before he arrives home with his beans, he passes by a young boy playing with some rocks. The young boy spots the beans and offers the man five pebbles in exchange for the four beans. Quickly agreeing, the man runs home and excitedly proclaims to his wife, “I set off with just a single cow, and instead of selling it in the market, I traded that for two chickens, which then fetched me three loaves of bread, for which I then got four beans, and now I have five pebbles! You have, indeed, the cleverest husband in the world.”

(A particularly amusing version of this tale is the poem “Smart” from Shel Silverstein’s 1974 book, Where the Sidewalk Ends, which can be found here: /2009/04/27/life/poetry-project/poem-smart-shel-silverstein).

What is wrong with this person’s reasoning? Clearly, he failed to realize that quantity isn’t everything: Just because a decision will result in a larger quantity of things doesn’t make that decision a good one. How should he have compared, say, four beans with three loaves of bread? Some common standard would have to be invoked according to which the four beans would be considered more, less, or equal to the three loaves. Without that common standard, the decision comes down to a matter of sheer numbers, which in this case proved to be ridiculously foolish, no matter how clever the man took himself to be.

Similarly, when people disagree about whether certain actions or policies would have better results than the alternatives, is there a common standard of moral value according to which such disagreements could be resolved? If there are not, what implications might this have for a utilitarian approach to these kinds of decisions?

produced by an action and subtract the pain, we can calculate a certain value for every sit- uation that would result from the available choices. The action that produces the greatest overall value is the morally right action. This form of moral reasoning is called hedonistic utilitarianism.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Many moral disputes involve dilemmas over how we should balance the positive and nega- tive results of actions or policies. The ability to resolve them in an objective way, if we are to follow Bentham’s procedure, depends on how well we’re able to identify and measure the overall pain and pleasure that are produced, assuming that pain and pleasure are to serve as our basic standard, as Bentham proposed. As we will see later, utilitarians following Bentham came to question this assumption about pain and pleasure, but the core idea underlying utili- tarianism remains the same:

Determine how much pleasure (or other positive value) minus pain (or other negative value) will result from the available actions spread across all the people affected by the actions and do that which produces the greatest overall good.

Mill’s Utilitarianism While Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism and set out its basic form, those who followed in his footsteps would modify and refine the theory. Per- haps the most well-known and influential of these was another 19th-century Englishman, John Stuart Mill. In his 1861 text, Utilitarianism, Mill adopted Bentham’s ideas and tried to communicate and defend them in a way that was simple and straight- forward and addressed the most common criticisms made of utilitarianism.

Read the sections “The Definition of Utilitarianism,” “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” and “Summary of the Utilitarian View” and come back to this point.

Mill begins with a definition of morality that clearly sets out the utilitarian account of the dif- ference between right and wrong actions.

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. (Mill, 1861/2001, p. 7)

The first question we should consider when we read this definition is “Why suppose that hap- piness, defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain, should be the standard of value when distinguishing right from wrong?” Mill answers this by offering a general theory of life, which is his primary justification for the utilitarian theory of morality. It reads: “Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and . . . all desirable things . . . are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (Mill, 1861/2001, p. 7). John Stuart Mill, utilitarian philosopher.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

In other words, Mill argues that when we consider what we value, desire, or aim at, we find that it is either pleasurable in itself or it leads to pleasure or to the prevention of pain. Gaining pleasure and avoiding pain is the ultimate purpose of everything we do, according to Mill. You are reading this text, ultimately, because of pleasure or pain. Reading this text may not bring you pleasure immediately, the way that reading a gripping novel, an amusing comic strip, or a friend’s birth announcement might do. And it may even be painful at times, perhaps because you find it confusing, boring, or problematic. Still, you’re doing so for a certain reason, such as to fulfill a course requirement.

In turn, there may be many reasons why you are taking the course, and if we go far enough along the road of considering why you’re doing so, eventually it’s the prospect of pleasure and relief from pain that drives you (so Mill says). The same goes for when you go to church, get married, raise your kids, help a neighbor, vote for a certain candidate, or tie your shoes. Basically, when we ask the question “Why did you do that?,” the answer always comes down to gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. So ultimately, on Mill’s account, that’s what happiness is: The more pleasure and less pain we have in our lives, the happier we are, and we all want happiness more than anything else.

If this is true, then it may seem that we have that common, intrinsically valuable feature of the consequences of our actions that we need to measure different outcomes and distinguish between right and wrong. As we have discussed in the previous chapters, there are countless ideas about what is good and worthwhile, what happiness is, and so on. But according to Mill, despite the differences we might have on such matters, everything comes down to pleasure and pain, and we don’t pursue pleasure and avoid pain for the sake of anything else. Thus, it follows that by determining the amount of overall happiness (pleasure minus pain) that results from our actions, we can determine which consequences are best, and thus which actions are objectively moral. To put it another way, Mill thinks that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain unites us in spite of our differences and can serve as the basis of a general, objective morality that can apply to all people.

On reading this account, many readers will no doubt protest, “Sure, a lot of what I do is for the sake of pleasure or avoiding pain, but not everything. Often I sacrifice my own pleasure or will- ingly take on pain for the sake of others.” For instance, parents often sacrifice personal plea- sures for the sake of their kids without a single thought given to the pleasure they might gain later. Great historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Jesus are known for having willingly endured tremendous suffering for the sake of a greater cause. Does this undermine the utilitarian account of moral action by challenging Mill’s claim that happiness is the ulti- mate aim of our actions?

Perhaps this is so if we suppose that it’s only our own happiness that matters to us, but this isn’t what Mill means. Mill recognizes that we can often be motivated by the prospect of greater happiness (i.e., greater pleasure or less pain) overall. In other words, he argues that happiness itself can motivate our choices. This can be our own happiness, but it can just as well be the happiness of others. Indeed, this is exactly what we would expect if the utilitarian account of morality were true.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Remember that utilitarianism holds that if we are to live morally, we should be choos- ing the actions with the best overall out- comes. If the “best outcomes” means those that contain greatest overall happiness compared with the outcomes of alterna- tive actions, then we would expect that the kinds of actions that we call noble or praiseworthy are motivated by this aspira- tion toward the happiness of all, even when that requires the sacrifice of one’s personal happiness.

Therefore, Mill thinks that the example of self-sacrifice supports his account, rather than undermines it. Happiness—whether our own or that of others—is the ultimate end of our actions, and thus it is the feature of consequences by which we compare the moral value of actions. This leads us to the original version of the utilitarian principle of morality:

Do that which results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Ethics FYI

John Stuart Mill John Stuart Mill was born in 1806 into a philosophical family. His father, James Mill, was a philosopher and a friend and disciple of Jeremy Bentham. James Mill and Bentham were dissatisfied with the educational system of the time and wanted to reform it so that children were raised and educated according to strict utilitarian principles.

John Stuart became a kind of experiment in such an education, and he became a child prodigy: He was helping his father edit a history of India at age 3; had read half of Plato by age 6; was fluent in several languages; and knew advanced mathematics, science, and history by the time he was a teenager.

But at age 20, as he was editing one of Bentham’s works, he had a nervous breakdown from working so hard on it. By his own account, John Stuart emerged from this condition partly by reading the poetry of William Wordsworth, and this experience led him to depart in an important way from Bentham’s theory, as described in Going Deeper: Higher and Lower Pleasures. Afterward, Mill became notable not just as a philosopher but as an educator and politician, and he was an influential early advocate for women’s rights.

You can read more of his own compelling and illuminating autobiography here:

Going Deeper: Higher and Lower Pleasures

Jeremy Bentham maintained that all pleasures and pains were equal in value and the only question is how much pleasure and pain is produced from each action. This led some critics to complain that, on the utilitarian view, a world with more pleasure is superior to a world with less pleasure, regardless of where that pleasure comes from. Does this entail that utilitarianism promotes a life of animalistic indulgence as superior to one that pursues more noble and distinctively human endeavors? John Stuart Mill did not think so, defending his position by drawing a distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures. See Going Deeper: Higher and Lower Pleasures at the end of this chapter for more.

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Section 3.2 Putting Utilitarianism Into Practice

3.2 Putting Utilitarianism Into Practice To review, utilitarianism maintains that morality is a matter of striving to make the world a better place by making choices that bring about the greatest overall happiness. This is a com- mon and familiar form of reasoning in everyday life. For example, if a child shares a toy with his brother, two children will enjoy playing with it rather than just one, resulting in more overall enjoyment (and avoiding the unhappiness of the child who wouldn’t get to play with it), and so we teach children to share with others. We are often compelled to help those in need even if it means a sacrifice on our part, because we recognize that our sacrifice pales in comparison to the benefits to those in need. This might involve donating time and money, but it might be something as simple as giving up one’s seat on the bus to an elderly or disabled person.

Moreover, we find this kind of reasoning invoked in politics, business, and science. Think about how many political arguments appeal to the prosperity and well-being of the majority of citi-

zens as the reason to be for or against cer- tain policies. Much of science and medicine proceeds with the aim of bettering our lives and the world, and we find people question- ing the value of scientific research when its utility isn’t as apparent. In economics, especially in capitalist societies, utilitarian approaches often assume that individuals and businesses will pursue their own suc- cess and profit and that we need certain rules and regulations to ensure that this will benefit society as a whole.

As we will see shortly, the familiarity of utilitarian reasoning and its conformity to many of our intuitions of what morality is ultimately all about are among its greatest

strengths. Still, it’s not the only form of moral reasoning we encounter or employ (which will become apparent in later chapters), so it’s helpful to clarify more precisely what distinguishes a utilitarian moral argument and correct some common misconceptions.

How Can I Recognize or Construct a Utilitarian Moral Argument? Typically, an argument that says “This is the right thing to do because it will lead to good results” is a utilitarian argument. So is one that says “This is wrong because it will bring about bad results.” This isn’t always the case, since other ways of thinking about ethics often appeal to the value of the consequences. The difference is that for the utilitarian, the appeal to the good or bad results is the primary or overriding reason for regarding some action, law, or policy as right or wrong. Moreover, we should consider whether the argument is taking into consideration the good or bad results overall among all those affected (rather than the good or bad results for an individual or a particular group). This involves comparing the positive and negative utility of alternative actions and determining what the overall balance is among those alternatives.

Going Deeper: The Trolley Problem

What if you could save five lives in a way that results in the death of a single person? If the overall consequences were the same, would it matter if you were intentionally harming that person or not? This problem is raised by the philosopher Philippa Foot (2002c) in her famous “trolley problem.” See Going Deeper: The Trolley Problem at the end of this chapter for more.

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Section 3.2 Putting Utilitarianism Into Practice

When we encounter these arguments in real life, people will usually appeal to positive and/ or negative consequences as the reason for or against an action or policy, but often they won’t carefully compare the positive consequences with the negative ones, or vice versa. This is what we, as people who care about the reasons for certain actions and policies, might have to fill in.

Examples From Political Debates In the following examples, we can see utilitarian reasoning at work in justifying a certain action or policy (in red) by appealing to the overall balance of good or bad consequences (in blue).

“Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because it makes them happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

This argument looks first at the happiness gained by same-sex couples if they are allowed to marry and assumes that the only reason they should not be allowed to marry is if the negative consequences outweigh that happiness. If they don’t, then according to the utilitarian, there is no reason not to allow them to marry.

“All nations need to work together to combat climate change; otherwise, the devastation will be severe and far-reaching.”

In this example, the argument does not appeal directly to any particular consequences like happiness or pleasure; we need to fill in those details. The implication is that according to some standard that we all share, climate change will have severely negative consequences, so nations have an obligation to minimize those negative consequences.

Examples From Everyday Life “I should make sure that the lights are turned off before I leave my home to conserve energy.”

Someone reasoning in this way might only be concerned with her electric bill, but she might also be thinking of the impact that her actions have on the community, nation, or planet. Either way, the reasoning behind turning off the lights is similar: If I turn off the lights, I’m contrib- uting to the overall reduction of my electrical bill, even if this particular instance won’t make much of an impact on my monthly statement. Likewise, if I turn off the lights, I’m contributing to the overall reduction of climate change, even if this particular instance won’t make much of an impact.

In both cases the idea is that if I’m to contribute to the best overall consequences, I should do X. Utilitarianism maintains that we have an obligation to choose those actions that contribute to the best world overall, so if turning off the lights contributes to the reduction of global warm- ing (even if the contribution is minimal), then I have an obligation to do so (unless leaving the lights on has positive consequences that outweigh this contribution).

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Section 3.2 Putting Utilitarianism Into Practice

“Don’t cheat on your boyfriend, because it will really hurt him if he finds out.”

The reasoning might be that the potential pain the boyfriend might experience if he finds out outweighs the pleasures gained through cheating.

“Share that toy with your brother so that when he has something you want, he’ll share with you.”

We might give this instruction to encourage a child to look beyond the immediate satisfaction he could enjoy by hogging a toy and consider the fact that, in the long run, both children will be happier if they share their toys.

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