What is utilitarianism? That may seem like an easy question — the kind of thing one might include on a quiz in one’s Intro to Ethics class with the expectation that every minimally attentive student will get it right. However, I think that the question is more tricky than that. There are two answers commonly given — two definitions of utilitarianism — but these, at least on their face, are not equivalent. This raises a puzzle about utilitarianism: in particular, about its relation to another widely discussed ethical doctrine, consequentialism. The puzzle can be resolved. But the resolution has important implications for our understanding of consequentialism. In this post, I’ll set out the puzzle. Later, I’ll explain my favoured solution.[UPDATE: I had initially intended to give my solution in a later post. But I found that I couldn’t resist letting the cat out the bag (pulling the rabbit out of the hat?) in response to comments on this post. So there will be no later post. If you’re interested in seeing the cat (rabbit?), see the discussion below.]
Let’s begin with the two definitions of utilitarianism advertised above. Here’s the first:
(U1) An action X is permissible if and only if the total utility in the outcome of X is at least as great that in every alternative.
There may be some minor quibbles about the wording of (U1). But, setting those aside, I hope that most would agree that this is the standard definition of utilitarianism. (No undergraduate should have points deducted for writing this as as a definition of utilitarianism in her Intro-to-Ethics quiz.)
The second definition is suggested by a claim that is commonly made about utilitarianism. It’s often said that utilitarianism can usefully be decomposed into two parts. (Sometimes it’s three parts; see Amartya Sen’s numerous writings on the subject. But I’ll stick to two here, to keep things simple.) The first part is a doctrine concerning the relation between “the right” and “the good”: roughly, that the right consists in maximising the good. And the second part is a doctrine about the good itself: roughly, that the good consists in total utility. The former doctrine is usually called consequentialism (the latter doesn’t really have a name). Often, the purpose of “decomposing” utilitarianism in this way is to show that one can reject one part — usually the second part — without rejecting the whole thing. Consequentialists are apt to say that the trouble with utilitarianism is not that it misunderstands the relation between the right and the good, but rather that it has a naive account of the good.
This suggests that utilitarianism may be defined as the conjunction of the following two claims:
(U2a) An action is permissible if and only if it’s outcome is at least as good as every alternative.
(U2b) One outcome X is at least as good as another Y if and only if the total utility in X is at least as great as that in Y.
On this second definition — call it (U2) — utilitarianism has two parts, as given by the two conjuncts, (U2a) and (U2b). It is in virtue of the first part that utilitarianism counts as a consequentialist view.
Now, here’s the puzzle: although both definitions, (U1) and (U2), are commonly given, they appear not to be equivalent; in particular, it seems that one might consistently accept (U1) while denying (U2). Suppose, for example, that someone — call him Eugene — says this: “I don’t believe in any such thing as ‘the goodness of outcomes’. I deny that any outcomes are such that one is at least as good as the other. Nonetheless, I do believe in permissibility, and I think that an action is permissible just in case it maximises total utility.” This seems to imply that Eugene is committed to accepting (U1) yet rejecting (U2); if what he said were true, then both conjuncts in (U2) would be false. So, is Eugene a utilitarian or not? If utilitarianism is defined by (U1), then he is. But if it’s defined by (U2) then he isn’t. But neither answer is very satisfying.
Suppose we settle on (U1) as our definition of utilitarianism. Then we should say that Eugene is a utilitarian. But this is odd, because Eugene is not a consequentialist; he rejects (U2a). And this contradicts the received wisdom that utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism — i.e., that utilitarianism is a particular instance of the broader category of consequentialist views. It would be misleading to say that consequentialism is a part of utilitarianism, as we commonly do say. Alternatively, suppose we settle on (U2). Then we should say that Eugene is not a utilitarian. But, again, that’s odd. After all, Eugene does believe that we ought to maximise total utility; and normally, I think, we would regard that as in itself sufficient to make him a utilitarian.
So, that’s the puzzle. Perhaps one tempting solution is the following. We might go with (U1) and concede that, strictly speaking, consequentialism is not part of utilitarianism; rather, it’s part of some utilitarian views, but not of others. We might distinguish two kinds of utilitarianism, one being consequentialist and the other nonconsequentialist. But we might add that the former kind is by far the more common, or more plausible. Strictly speaking, Eugene is a utilitarian; but he endorses a non-standard brand of utilitarianism, which is so unusual or implausible as not to be worth considering.
However, I’m not inclined to favour that solution. It seems to sacrifice too much of our common understanding of utilitarianism. To countenance the possibility of nonconsequentialist utilitarianism — even the bare conceptual possibility — would be very revisionary. A solution that is so revisionary should be adopted only as a last resort. But it need not come to that, since there is, I believe, a better solution.
I’ll save my favoured solution for another time. (To briefly anticipate: the basic strategy is to show that, despite appearances, (U1) and (U2) are equivalent, after all.) For now, I’m interested to know what others make of all this. Do others find it puzzling too?