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Counting Costs &
Making Tough Calls
Military decision-making, and public policy generally (including
economic policy), frequently make use of “outcomes-based”
The “right” decision, action, or policy is defined as the one that
optimizes the balance of benefits over harms for all affected. For
President Truman’s decision to use nuclear force on Hiroshima
Churchill and the Bombing of Coventry
“lifeboat” dilemmas
“medical triage” decisions
Crimson Tide
Problems and Pitfalls
 “Do
the ends justify the means?”
 Familiar Soviet proverb: “If you want to
make an omelet, you have to break a
few eggs”
 Are the requirements of justice and
protections of human rights negotiable
at the “bottom line?”
The “utility” (usefulness or moral rightness) of
a policy is measured by its tendency to
promote the “good” (or to prevent harm).
“Act utilitarianism” – Jeremy Bentham
[“the good” is simply pleasure]
“Rule utilitarianism” – John Stuart Mill
[“the good” is happiness, a more complex
notion, achieved by living a principled and
prudent life]
Bentham’s “Act” Utilitarianism
“Nature has placed mankind under the governancy of two
sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to
point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we
shall do.”
“The principle of utility . . . Is that principle which approves or
disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the
tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the
happiness of the party whose interest is in question”
“By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends
to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, or
to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness.
. .”
Net Utility
For every human action, X, there is a quantity
u(X) associated with that action, called the
“net utility” of that act.
 This net utility of X is the sum of all the
benefits (B) minus the harms (H) of the action
 The net utility of X must be calculated for all
individuals, i, affected by X; thus:
u (X) = 3 B(x) - H(x),
for all i
 An action is “morally right” if it has a higher
net utility than any alternative.
Bentham’s “Hedonistic
Prin of Morals & Legislation, Ch IV
 Bentham
envisioned an actual calculus
of pain and pleasure, something like the
 For every act (or choice), x (where x’s
effects are a function of time), there is a
quantity U(x), the net utility of X for time
t, such that
Let : I= intensity of X
D= duration of X
C = certainty of X
P= propinquity of X
F = fecundity of X
R = purity of X
E = extent or distribution of X, then
U[x(t)] =
 I [ x(t )]D[ x(t )]C[ x(t )]P[ x(t )]F[ x(t )]R[ x(t )]E[ x(t )]dt
t 0
Criticisms of Bentham’s
 Hedonism
– a moral theory “fit for
 Atheistic – leaves out God (and by
extension, any higher-order moral
 Promotes selfishness – calculus of pure
Modern Criticisms
Quantification and measurability of “the good”
 Incommensurate notions of “the good”
 Ignores other, morally relevant considerations
(e.g., human rights, and justice – distribution
of “the good”)
 Difficult and often inconsistent in practice to
solve for U(x) and maximize this variable
 Obligation overload (no supererogation)
John Stuart Mill’s Revisions: “Rule”
“Doctrine of the Swine” – how DO we
determine what sorts of actions or activities
are the things that bring genuine happiness?
 ANS: consult those with experience and
expertise to judge; the “wisdom of humanity”
 Utilitarianism is NOT equivalent to
selfishness. Mill writes:
“. . .between his own happiness and that of
another, utilitarianism requires that one be
strictly impartial as a disinterested and
benevolent spectator.”
Mill’s Response to Atheism
“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we
read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.
To do as you would be done by, and to love
your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal
perfection of utilitarian morality.”
 Utility is NOT a “godless” doctrine. “If it be a
true belief that God desires, above all things,
the happiness of his creatures, and that this
was his purpose in their creation, utility is not
only not a godless doctrine, but more
profoundly religious than any other.”
Mill’s Innovations – Qualitative
Happiness versus mere Quantitative
“Happiness” is NOT simply equivalent to
 “lower quality pleasures” (shared with other
animals – e.g., food, sex)
 “higher quality pleasures,” uniquely human,
involving our so-called higher faculties
 Notions like “rights” and “justice” are merely
“rules of thumb” that represent underlying
calculations of overall utility (rule
The Principle of Utility and
the Nautical Almanac
sailors do not customarily calculate
declinations, equations of time, or zone
meridian passages of celestial bodies
themselves, each time they wish to chart their
 Instead, these observations are calculated in
advance from fundamental astronomical
principles, and then printed for reference in
the Nautical Almanac
The “Moral
Likewise, we shouldn’t have to derive right
and wrong in specific instances each time we
face a dilemma, directly from the basic rules
of morality
 We, too, have a “moral Almanac”: the rules,
laws, religious teachings, moral traditions
and customs of the past -- all of which
reflect accumulated human wisdom about the
kinds of actions and policies that tend to
promote utility
The Principle of Utility and
The Moral Almanac
“Principle of Utility” performs three vital
Explains the foundations, and offers
justification, for our moral rules, laws, and
customs, or
Exposes the inadequacy of unjust laws or
customs that do NOT promote utility; and
Offers us a means for resolving conflicts
between rules and laws, or deciding vexing
cases on which traditional moral rules and
laws are silent