A Note on Utilitarianism

3 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2008

See all articles by R. Edward Freeman

R. Edward Freeman

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Patricia H. Werhane

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Scott Sonenshein

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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Abstract

This note explains the various forms of utilitarianism, the idea that an action is morally correct if it contributes to maximizing the good in society.

Excerpt

UVA-E-0189

A Note on Utilitarianism

One main branch of thinking about ethics focuses on what is good. Such teleological theories claim that morality involves maximizing “the good,” though there is a great deal of disagreement over precisely what constitutes the good. For some, the good is power, knowledge, or perfection. Others identify the good with pleasure or happiness and are known as “utilitarians.” Utilitarians believe that actions which are ethical must maximize the amount of happiness or utility in a society.

Whenever one analyzes an ethical issue in business, a chief concern is with the costs and benefits of the alternatives. Although such an approach appears to be primarily economic, it is buttressed by a well-known ethical theory, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism links what is universally desired with what is desirable and argues that what is most important and universally valued is the satisfaction of desires or interests, human pleasure or happiness, or the reduction of human suffering. A utilitarian judges human action in terms of its outcomes; that is, she measures the positive or negative utility of an action itself, not merely what it was meant to achieve. The best sort of decision, then, is one that maximizes human interests, best satisfies desires or pleasures, or minimizes harm. (Human interests include life, health, wealth, human dignity, autonomy, or pleasure.)

A utilitarian measures harms and benefits in terms of their qualitative and quantitative merit, long-term and short-term results, or immediate or latent satisfaction. In making a moral decision, one takes into account how a particular action or set of decisions would affect the greatest number of people, impartially evaluating each person's interests. The best kind of moral decision making, then, impartially applies the principle of utility over the range of persons affected by the decision or its outcomes. It weighs each person and his or her interests equally and seeks an equitable, if not an equal, distribution of benefits or harms. The best outcome maximizes the interests (or contributes to the happiness) of the greatest number, leading to more benefits than harms for most people. At a minimum, utilitarian morality demands reducing harm, all things considered.

Some utilitarians argue that one ought to judge each act separately according to its utility. So-called act utilitarians seek to maximize the good for each particular action. For example, if a doctor with limited resources could only perform one surgery for two dying patients, she would ask herself which treatment would bring the most happiness. However, in some cases, act utilitarianism requires apparently immoral acts. Consider Ursula Le Guin's story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas is a utopia—full of happiness and filled with culture, prosperity, entertainment, and beauty. However, Omelas's good fortune is conditional on the pain and suffering of one child who is enslaved in a small, windowless room.

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Keywords: ethical issues

Suggested Citation

Freeman, R. Edward and Werhane, Patricia H. and Sonenshein, Scott, A Note on Utilitarianism. Darden Case No. UVA-E-0189, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=908453

R. Edward Freeman (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States
804-924-0935 (Phone)
804-924-6378 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/freeman.htm

Patricia H. Werhane

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States
434-924-4840 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/werhane.htm

Scott Sonenshein

affiliation not provided to SSRN

No Address Available

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