Rachels, Ch7: The Utilitarian Approach


1.      Moral theories specify what makes actions right (and wrong)

2.      Moral theories considered so far include

         a.      Subjectivism: The morally right act (MRA) is the act I (the speaker) approve(s) of (this is “simple subjectivism”)

         b.      Cultural relativism: The MRA is that act approved of by a society’s moral code

         c.      Divine command theory: MRA is the act commanded by God

         d.      Ethical egoism: MRA is the act that best promotes the agent’s self-interest

         e.      Social contract theory: MRAs are those acts that follow the rules necessary for social living (and to avoid a state of nature) that rational people would agree to on the condition that others agreed to follow the rules as well (reciprocity)



4.      Utilitarianism: MRA is the act whose consequences bring into the world the greatest total amount of happiness (after subtracting any unhappiness caused)

         a.      One moral rule central to utilitarianism

                   i.       Principle of utility: Right acts maximize happiness (utility)

         b.      Imagine a world with as much happiness as possible; your job as a moral agent is to act so as to bring us as close as possible to this world

5.      To act correctly, follow these procedures

         a.      One: Look at all available alternative actions

         b.      Two: For each, calculate the degree of happiness they produce (for everyone involved–note this is not egoism)

         c.      Three: For each, subtract the degree of unhappiness they produce (for everyone affected)

         d.      Do the action that maximizes this total (or minimizes the negative, if all alternatives have negative results)

         e.      Any other action is wrong.


6.      Questions to test understanding of utilitarian

         a.      Act A makes 10 people happy and act B makes 3 people happy, does it follow you should do act A?

                   i.       No: Need to consider degrees of happiness

                   ii.      Examples:

                            (1)    Should you give 400 students $0.10 or 1 student $40?

                            (2)    Ban gay marriage? Makes 80% of people somewhat happy, and makes 5% miserable

                                      (a)     Democracy goes with the greatest number, utilitarianism allows strength of preferences to be included in the decision

         b.      Act A makes 10 people each 10 units happy and Act B makes 3 people 20 units happy, does it follow you should do act A?

                   i.       No: Need to subtract the unhappiness caused (act a might also cause 15 people to be 5 units unhappy and B might have no negative consequences)

         c.      Act A makes people overall happier than act B, does it follow you do act A?

                   i.       No: Must include the happiness of everyone affected (it could be that act A causes great suffering to sentient animals)

                   ii.      Example: People might be overall happier eating frois gras (liver pate) than if it was banned. But when you consider the suffering of the geese/ducks --who are forced fed (via pipes down their throats) so their livers expand 10 times normal size-- banning frois gras might have better overall results in terms of happiness

         d.      Act A brings about more total happiness overall into the world than act B, does it follow that one should do act A?

                   i.       No: Must consider all the alternatives; Act C might maximize total happiness more than A

                   ii.      Example: Factory farming versus improved treatment of farm animals versus abolishing animal agriculture



8.      Facts: Had cancer, large swelling in back of neck, would have no more good days. Asked his friend and personal physician to end his suffering and the doctor injected a drug that ended Freud’s life (“he soon felt relief and fell into a peaceful sleep”)

9.      Did Freud’s doctor do the wrong thing?

         a.      Yes? Because “intentionally killing innocent people is always wrong”

         b.      Utilitarianism does not accept such inflexible rules

10.    Utilitarianism suggest doctor did the right thing

         a.      The act brought about the best overall consequences in terms of maximizing happiness (and minimizing suffering)

         b.      Freud thought he’d be better off dead; by killing him, the doctor prevented a great deal of suffering

         c.      A world in which there was no suffering Freud was a better world in terms of overall happiness



         a.      Examples:

                   i.       Laws preventing euthanasia

                   ii.      Laws regulating sex among consenting adults

                            (1)    If such behavior does not harm others and contributes to the satisfaction/happiness of those involved, they should be repealed as they stand in the way of maximizing happiness



13.    Is drug use morally wrong?

         a.      Utilitarians: That question depends on whether it increase or decrease happiness

14.    Happiness caused

         a.      Pleasure it brings; can “greatly enhance pleasure of sensory activities” (eating, listening to music, having sex)

                   i.       Enjoyment is not–as usually assumed–irrelevant to morality

         b.      Some like it; some don’t

         c.      Many people do like to use it; 1/3 American’s tried it; 6% used it in past month; each year American’s spend over $10 billion on i.

15.    Unhappiness caused

         a.      Unfounded claims (says Rachels): Not cause violence as makes people passive, not aggressive; not a gateway drug (not cause people to crave and use harder drugs); not highly addictive (less addictive than caffeine)

         b.      Real disadvantages

                   i.       Some do get addicted and for them quitting is painful and difficult

                   ii.      Long-term heavy use can cause mild cognitive damage, which may decrease happiness

                   iii.     Unproductivity of people who are use it a lot

                   iv.     Bad for lungs (6 times worse than cigarettes)

                   v.      He’s ignoring the disadvantages of getting caught and throw out of school and jailed! (That would not be relevant for the public policy debate over legalization, but it is relevant for an individual’s decision to use or not, given the current laws)

16.    Overall utilitarian evaluation (Rachels makes)

         a.      Casual use should be a matter of personal preference as occasional use has no known disadvantages

         b.      Utilitarians might disagree about how to balance benefits and costs of long term heavy use


17.    Utilitarians on legalization

         a.      People happier with more freedom and drug laws reduce freedom

         b.      Legalization would increase use and this could have bad consequences for happiness

                   i.       Less productive society as a whole

                   ii.      Taxpayers stuck with medical bills of heavy users

         c.      If marijuana use would substitute for alcohol use this would be good, as alcohol causes much more harm than marijuana use

         d.      Lost taxes and enforcement costs: $7 billion a year for each could be saved

         e.      Most important: Costs on those who break marijuana laws would be eliminated

                   i.       850,000 a year arrested; 44,000 currently in prison

                   ii.      This cause significant unhappiness

         f.       “Almost all utilitarians favor legalization of Marijuana”

                   i.       Marijuana less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes which we already tolerate




19.    Traditional view of animals as not morally considerable:

         a.      No moral standing; no intrinsic value; solely instrumental value

         b.      Animals here for our use, mere resources for human ends

                   i.       Higher is here for the lower (plants for animals and animals for people)

         c.      Animals do not count morally in their own right

                   i.       Humans can treat them in whatever ways they want as long as do not violate duties to other humans

20.    Why is cruelty to animals wrong on this “traditional” view?

         a.      Not because the animal counts or not because it wrongs the animal

         b.      But because it has negative effects on human welfare

                   i.       Makes those who are cruel to animals likely to be cruel to people, or

                   ii.      Upsets some humans

         c.      Why should I not shoot my neighbor’s dog?

                   i.       “Not sin of murder, but sin of theft”

                   ii.      Not wronging the dog, but my neighbor

21.    Traditional view seems extreme, but it clearly guides our treatment of animals

         a.      We eat them, we make them subjects of experiments in labs, we use their skins for clothing, and their heads for wall ornaments, we make them objects of amusement in zoos and rodeos, we hunt and hook them “for the fun of it”

         b.      For a through study of industrial animal farming see Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

22.    Reasons given for why animals do not count in their own right

         a.      Have no souls

         b.      Not rational

         c.      Can’t speak

         d.      Can’t act morally

23.    But some humans lack these as well!

24.    Reply: They do not count because they aren’t human (this is speciesism)


25.    Utilitarianism view of moral status of animals

         a.      Whether animals count morally or not depends solely on whether animals can be happy/unhappy,

                   i.       Whether they feel pleasure/pain (whether they are sentient beings)

         b.      If a being can suffer or experience happiness, morality requires us to take this into account

                   i.       For the goal of morality is to maximize happiness

         c.      Whose suffering/happiness does not matter (whether human or animal)

         d.      Rejects speciesism (the view that species membership itself is a reason to give greater weight to the interest of humans over animals)

                   i.       Analogous to racism/sexism


26.    For utilitarians, humans and nonhuman (sentient) animals both count morally

         a.      In the same moral category

         b.      The same reason for why it is wrong to torment a human applies to why it is wrong to torment an animal:

                   i.       They suffer and morality requires us to alleviate this

27.    Animals get included in moral principle of equal consideration of interests

         a.      Suffering/happiness of one counts equally with similar suffering/happiness of the other

28.    Human’s special capacities (e.g., their intelligence) make them subject to happiness and suffering that animals can’t experience (think about the unhappiness of losing one’s mother for an animal and for a human)

         a.      Morality requires us to consider these forms of happiness/unhappiness too

29.    So equal concern for the similar suffering of animals does not entail humans and animals should be treated in the same ways

         a.      Many factual difference between them that can justify differences in treatment

30.    Utilitarian approach to morality of experimenting on animals and raising/slaughtering animals for food

         a.      The suffering of the animals must be outweighed by the benefits humans derive from these practices, or the practices are wrong

         b.      Must also consider alternative ways to achieve these benefits that involve less suffering (e.g., veggie diet)   

Study questions Rachels, Ch 7, Utilitarianism


1.      Define utilitarianism and describe in detail how a utilitarian would go about deciding whether or not an act is morally right. In what sense is utilitarianism a consequentialist moral theory? What is the difference between utilitarianism and ethical egoism?

2.      If act A made 10 beings happy and act B made 50 beings happy would a utilitarian be committed to saying act B is better than act A? Why or why not? (Consider degrees of happiness)

3.      If act A made people happier overall than did act B, would a utilitarian be committed to saying act A is better than act B? Why or why not? (Consider affects on all sentient beings)

4.      If act A made all beings overall happier than did act B, would a utilitarian be committed to saying act A is the morally right act? Why or why not? (Consider alternatives that produces even more happiness)

5.      Give a utilitarian evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of euthanasia. Do you agree with this account?

6.      Provide a utilitarian evaluation of whether or not smoking marijuana is morally permissible and relatedly a utilitarian evaluation of whether or not marijuana should be legalized. Do you agree with the utilitarian approach to this issue?

7.      What is the traditional “anthropocentric” view of moral standing/intrinsic value of nonhumans? Is cruelty to animals wrong on this view? Why or why not? Explain why a consistent utilitarian must include the pleasure/pain of animals in deciding what it is right to do?