Social Science

The Patriot Act The primary function of the USA Patriot Act is stated in its full title: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” To this end, it has expanded “law enforcement investigatory tools,” including surveillance of individuals.


Those in support of the Act often argue that the loss of privacy brought about by the collection of information on individuals that the Act allows is far preferable to even one terrorist attack on US soil. It is what best promotes the general welfare or well-being of the population affected by the Act. Do you agree?


For your convenience, here are some links where you can find additional information on the Patriot Act:




National security versus individual freedom: Surveillance and the Patriot Act

The Patriot Act and Consequences

For both those who argue in favor of the Patriot Act and those against it, a key matter is: What are the consequences of implementing the policy? Does this Act lead to better outcomes than alternative policies? If so, it is the right policy. If not, it is the wrong policy. That is a moral evaluation. It is dependent on the assessment of outcomes or consequences. Thinking about the rightness of actions in terms of the desirability or undesirability of their consequences for those whose lives are affected is characteristic of utilitarianism.


Many of you are familiar with the phrases “outcomes assessment” and “process and outcomes assessment.” They or their synonyms are used broadly today in education, business, government, engineering, health care, and the military, to name just a few areas. Whenever you hear of measurement of outcomes, you know that an issue is being approached in terms of the theory of utility, an extraordinarily influential theory of ethics. The point of the interaction section below is to bring to your attention important elements in how the two most significant proponents of the theory, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, framed the theory and how it could be useful for case discussion.

Utilitarianism and Social Progress

We begin, with this module, our examination of the major approaches to ethical reflection, approaches that you will be expected to apply to cases. The module contents focus on providing you with commentary that is based on primary sources; that is, on the writings of the thinkers who articulated and developed the various moral theories we apply in cases. This is intended to complement the textbook presentation of major approaches to ethical reflection.


Welfare, well-being, the good, benefit, happiness are all going to be treated as near synonyms. They are what utility is. In line with 18th-century Enlightenment thinking, the utilitarians believed in the power of reason to overcome the dead weight of customs and prejudices. Their goal was not disruption for its own sake, but the improvement of the lot of humanity. Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian who was particularly concerned with reforming the legal system in Britain. Utilitarians believed the greater good of humanity was being held down by laws that benefit social and religious elites. Social reform would allow society to unleash the human potential that was held back by prejudicial laws.

The Principle of Utility

To this end, Bentham took what appeared to him to be the most common-sense approach to what is the good or the happiness that people pursue and avoid: it is pleasure and pain. It was in terms of pleasure and pain that he framed the principle of utility. Here is one of the ways he formulated it in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).


“An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility…when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.”


This principle applies both to individual action and to government policy (chap.1, pars. 6 and 7).

Neither Bentham nor his most famous follower, John Stuart Mill, thought that the principle was capable of proof. Rather, it was assumed, as was the idea that people seek happiness.

The Utilitarian Is Individualistic

A view typical of the British and American approach to society is to think of it as a collection of individuals rather than as an organic whole. In an organic entity like a biological body, the whole is greater than the parts. For the utilitarians, on the contrary, the whole of society as a body is the sum of its parts: the individuals that compose it. So the utility of a community, for the utilitarian, is the sum of the utility of the individuals affected by an action or a policy.


The principle of utility is entirely forward-looking. All that matters is the goodness or badness of the consequences. It wouldn’t matter what the motive for acting is. If the consequences are on balance good, or better than alternatives, then the act is right no matter what motives the agent had. John Stuart Mill, who is probably the most influential utilitarian thinker, thought that it is usually very helpful if agents are motivated by sympathy, benevolence, or regard for other people’s good opinion. But ultimately, the moral rightness of an action is not a matter of the motive for acting, but only the consequence of the action. If I hurt more people than I help, then my action is morally wrong, even if I acted with the best of intentions. Do you agree?

The Principle of Utility Is Objective

Because motives are not relevant, it wouldn’t matter who is doing the calculation of benefits and burdens in the assessment of utility. The calculation is purely objective. Indeed, in the utilitarian’s mind, the objectivity of the principle was intended to counterbalance the weight of archaic social customs and religious influences on social polices. Do you agree with the utilitarians that social and religious customs stand in the way of happiness?


The forward-looking utilitarian seeks to bring about what people desire as a good for themselves. Note that the utilitarian is not supposed to be judgmental and impose on others what she thinks is good for them. The utilitarian is expected to allow people to decide for themselves where their happiness lies and to impartially promote that, to the extent that it is feasible. The theory is thus intended, at the outset, to be vague about what constitutes the good. Its general policy encourages people to make a decision for themselves. John Stuart Mill argued that the utilitarian is expected to rely on what past experience has taught humanity about what tends to make people happy. In any case, what constitutes utility should always be based on experience, not on reasoning divorced from experience. Do you agree that experience is the source of our knowledge of what is good or bad?

Actions and Policies Have Instrumental Value Only

The principle of utility draws on two levels of evaluation. Consequences of actions and policies are pursued for their own sake. They have intrinsic value. Their intrinsic value is what the theory aims at realizing and is what is called utility, welfare, the good, etc. Actions and policies do not have intrinsic value. They are like tools that one uses to bring about desired consequences; thus they have only instrumental value.


Actions or policies are judged to be right if they bring about more good than bad consequences; otherwise they are wrong. Thus, the value of being right or wrong as said of an action or policy is only instrumental. This point is important to remember. This means that actions such as telling the truth or keeping promises are not intrinsically right actions. Do you agree?

How to Assess Utility: Bentham’s Answer I

In the process of calculating utility, the following are the “dimensions of value” of utility, understood as pleasure or pain, that Bentham identified:

1. Intensity

2. Duration

3. Probability of occurrence

4. Closeness or remoteness in time in comparison to the present (people tend to discount events the farther away in the future they are)


5.   Likelihood of a good consequence being followed by more good consequences or of bad consequences being followed by more bad consequences (Bentham called this fecundity)


6.   Likelihood of a good consequence being followed by bad consequences or of a bad consequence being followed by good consequences (Bentham called this purity)


7.   Extent. By this, Bentham meant the number of individuals affected by an action or policy. This would include animals.

Do you agree that the happiness, in the sense of pleasure of pain, of animals counts in moral decision making?

Some Issues with Bentham’s Approach to Utility

Perhaps oddly, Bentham included the “pleasures of malevolence” among the pleasures the objective utilitarian calculation ought to incorporate. These are things such as people’s feelings of ill-will towards others, or the pleasure they take in the misfortune of others.


Do you think it is sensible to promote people’s feelings of ill-will or their enjoyment in the misfortunes of others? How is that conducive to human progress?


Bentham also did not discriminate between higher and lower pleasures. It is really up to individuals to pursue the pleasures they see fit.


What do you think: Is the pleasure derived from binge drinking, for instance, as good as the pleasure of mastering golf or calculus?


How might Bentham answer this question? (Perhaps some of the dimensions of utility he distinguished, such as purity and fecundity, might help provide an answer.)

Mill Comes to the Rescue

Bentham’s follower, John Stuart Mill, adapted aspects of the theory of utility in order to save it from some of its apparent oddities. In On Liberty, Mill clearly rejected “cruelty of disposition; malice and ill-nature” as “properly immoral.” It appeared obvious to him that such things are incompatible with human progress, which is the ideal that stands behind the advocacy for utilitarianism.


Mill saw humanity as progressing to a society of equals in which individuals can freely develop their talents. With proper education, Mill thought we would all come to see that some kinds of pleasure are more valuable and have greater quality than others. Among these, he included the pleasures of pursuing knowledge, or employing the “higher faculties,” the pleasures of cultivating friendship, and the pleasures of civic involvement.


Do you agree that some kinds of pleasure are superior to others?

Mill’s Empirical Justification for Distinguishing Higher and Lower Pleasures

How would we know some pleasures are indeed superior? Mill’s answer is that we would find this out by surveying those who have experienced a variety of pleasures, both high and low. As a matter of fact, Mill believed that those with the most varied experiences will agree that higher quality pleasures are well worth the effort. Mill enjoins us to ask people of wide experience whether they would consent to give up the pleasures of intellectual stimulation, friendship, and civic engagement for a life in which only immediate physical pleasures are satisfied. Mill thought the weight of human experience allows us to predict that the answer is no, saying famously that it is “better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”


Do you want to step up to argue in defense of the fool?


Mill stated the ideal of human progress in the most eloquent of terms. Aside from physical ills, which might be remedied by social improvement, he thought that one of the chief barriers to happiness was the restriction of liberty by which individuals are subjected to the whims of others (On Liberty). Again, this is a matter discoverable through experience: being subjected to arbitrary treatment by others leads to misery.


Do you agree that this is what experience teaches us?

Mill on Following Rules

Mill does allow that performing a utilitarian calculation is not always required. In most cases, one can resort to rules of thumb, drawn from “the experience of human life” (Mill chap. 2). Mill implicitly accepted something that was to be called, by 20th-century ethicists, rule utilitarianism. The collective experience of humanity instructs us, for instance, that we ought not resort to deception to achieve our ends, because deception generally leads to poor consequences.


But rules of action are but “rules of morality for the multitudes.” Mill clearly stated that, ultimately, these rules are like “landmarks and direction-posts on the way” to a fully developed ethical reflection. A fully developed ethical reflection requires the application of the principle of utility to the particular case at hand. This position has been called act utilitarianism. Ultimately, in complex cases, rules are not good enough. Do you agree with Mill?

The Theory of Utility Both Influential and Disturbing

The theory of utility has strong points and it is extraordinarily influential in most aspects of contemporary life. It might present aspects that you find disturbing, such as the fact that no action is intrinsically right or wrong, so that the theory may advocate that resorting to deception in a particular case is, objectively, the right thing to do. For all that, it is appropriate to remember that the utilitarian has great faith in human improvement.


The role of the principle of utility is to serve human progress, including justice. Nevertheless no one theory of morality can address the entire complexity of moral life. This and the next few modules will give us a glimpse of alternative approaches to the issue of the right and the good. Together, they should give us a fuller picture of the varieties of moral reflection, all tending to provide us a better understanding of our moral life.

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