Research on how to compare the value of different consequences

We have said that to meaningfully compare the value of different consequences, we have to find some kind of standard or unit of measurement common to all of the outcomes.

There is an old fairy tale that illustrates this principle:

A man and his wife have one possession, an old milking cow. Times are hard, and they decide that they have no choice but to sell the cow so they can have some money for food. As the man is leading the cow toward the market to sell, he passes by a peasant carrying a pair of chickens. “Say, that’s a fine cow you have there,” says the peasant. “I don’t suppose you would like to trade your one cow for two whole chickens.” The man thinks to himself, “Two is more than one, as everyone knows. This is a deal that can’t be passed up!” He quickly agrees and leaves the cow with the peasant, taking the two chickens instead. By and by he meets a woman selling loaves of bread, who offers him three loaves of bread in exchange for the two chickens. Again the man reasons, “Three is more than two, as everyone knows. This woman must not be very clever to be willing to take only two chickens in exchange for three loaves of bread!” So he makes the exchange and continues on his way. A while later, he comes across an old beggar with four beans spread on a blanket. “What say you exchange those three loaves of bread for these four beans?” suggests the beggar. The man thinks to himself, “It’s no wonder that he’s a beggar if he doesn’t even realize that four is more than three! I have never had such luck!” Just before he arrives home with his beans, he passes by a young boy playing with some rocks. The young boy spots the beans and offers the man five pebbles in exchange for the four beans. Quickly agreeing, the man runs home and excitedly proclaims to his wife, “I set off with just a single cow, and instead of selling it in the market, I traded that for two chickens, which then fetched me three loaves of bread, for which I then got four beans, and now I have five pebbles! You have, indeed, the cleverest husband in the world.”

(A particularly amusing version of this tale is the poem “Smart” from Shel Silverstein’s 1974 book, Where the Sidewalk Ends, which can be found here: /2009/04/27/life/poetry-project/poem-smart-shel-silverstein).

What is wrong with this person’s reasoning? Clearly, he failed to realize that quantity isn’t everything: Just because a decision will result in a larger quantity of things doesn’t make that decision a good one. How should he have compared, say, four beans with three loaves of bread? Some common standard would have to be invoked according to which the four beans would be considered more, less, or equal to the three loaves. Without that common standard, the decision comes down to a matter of sheer numbers, which in this case proved to be ridiculously foolish, no matter how clever the man took himself to be.

Similarly, when people disagree about whether certain actions or policies would have better results than the alternatives, is there a common standard of moral value according to which such disagreements could be resolved? If there are not, what implications might this have for a utilitarian approach to these kinds of decisions?

produced by an action and subtract the pain, we can calculate a certain value for every sit- uation that would result from the available choices. The action that produces the greatest overall value is the morally right action. This form of moral reasoning is called hedonistic utilitarianism.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Many moral disputes involve dilemmas over how we should balance the positive and nega- tive results of actions or policies. The ability to resolve them in an objective way, if we are to follow Bentham’s procedure, depends on how well we’re able to identify and measure the overall pain and pleasure that are produced, assuming that pain and pleasure are to serve as our basic standard, as Bentham proposed. As we will see later, utilitarians following Bentham came to question this assumption about pain and pleasure, but the core idea underlying utili- tarianism remains the same:

Determine how much pleasure (or other positive value) minus pain (or other negative value) will result from the available actions spread across all the people affected by the actions and do that which produces the greatest overall good.

Mill’s Utilitarianism While Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism and set out its basic form, those who followed in his footsteps would modify and refine the theory. Per- haps the most well-known and influential of these was another 19th-century Englishman, John Stuart Mill. In his 1861 text, Utilitarianism, Mill adopted Bentham’s ideas and tried to communicate and defend them in a way that was simple and straight- forward and addressed the most common criticisms made of utilitarianism.

Read the sections “The Definition of Utilitarianism,” “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” and “Summary of the Utilitarian View” and come back to this point.

Mill begins with a definition of morality that clearly sets out the utilitarian account of the dif- ference between right and wrong actions.

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. (Mill, 1861/2001, p. 7)

The first question we should consider when we read this definition is “Why suppose that hap- piness, defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain, should be the standard of value when distinguishing right from wrong?” Mill answers this by offering a general theory of life, which is his primary justification for the utilitarian theory of morality. It reads: “Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and . . . all desirable things . . . are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (Mill, 1861/2001, p. 7). John Stuart Mill, utilitarian philosopher.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

In other words, Mill argues that when we consider what we value, desire, or aim at, we find that it is either pleasurable in itself or it leads to pleasure or to the prevention of pain. Gaining pleasure and avoiding pain is the ultimate purpose of everything we do, according to Mill. You are reading this text, ultimately, because of pleasure or pain. Reading this text may not bring you pleasure immediately, the way that reading a gripping novel, an amusing comic strip, or a friend’s birth announcement might do. And it may even be painful at times, perhaps because you find it confusing, boring, or problematic. Still, you’re doing so for a certain reason, such as to fulfill a course requirement.

In turn, there may be many reasons why you are taking the course, and if we go far enough along the road of considering why you’re doing so, eventually it’s the prospect of pleasure and relief from pain that drives you (so Mill says). The same goes for when you go to church, get married, raise your kids, help a neighbor, vote for a certain candidate, or tie your shoes. Basically, when we ask the question “Why did you do that?,” the answer always comes down to gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. So ultimately, on Mill’s account, that’s what happiness is: The more pleasure and less pain we have in our lives, the happier we are, and we all want happiness more than anything else.

If this is true, then it may seem that we have that common, intrinsically valuable feature of the consequences of our actions that we need to measure different outcomes and distinguish between right and wrong. As we have discussed in the previous chapters, there are countless ideas about what is good and worthwhile, what happiness is, and so on. But according to Mill, despite the differences we might have on such matters, everything comes down to pleasure and pain, and we don’t pursue pleasure and avoid pain for the sake of anything else. Thus, it follows that by determining the amount of overall happiness (pleasure minus pain) that results from our actions, we can determine which consequences are best, and thus which actions are objectively moral. To put it another way, Mill thinks that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain unites us in spite of our differences and can serve as the basis of a general, objective morality that can apply to all people.

On reading this account, many readers will no doubt protest, “Sure, a lot of what I do is for the sake of pleasure or avoiding pain, but not everything. Often I sacrifice my own pleasure or will- ingly take on pain for the sake of others.” For instance, parents often sacrifice personal plea- sures for the sake of their kids without a single thought given to the pleasure they might gain later. Great historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Jesus are known for having willingly endured tremendous suffering for the sake of a greater cause. Does this undermine the utilitarian account of moral action by challenging Mill’s claim that happiness is the ulti- mate aim of our actions?

Perhaps this is so if we suppose that it’s only our own happiness that matters to us, but this isn’t what Mill means. Mill recognizes that we can often be motivated by the prospect of greater happiness (i.e., greater pleasure or less pain) overall. In other words, he argues that happiness itself can motivate our choices. This can be our own happiness, but it can just as well be the happiness of others. Indeed, this is exactly what we would expect if the utilitarian account of morality were true.

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Section 3.1 Introduction to Utilitarianism

Remember that utilitarianism holds that if we are to live morally, we should be choos- ing the actions with the best overall out- comes. If the “best outcomes” means those that contain greatest overall happiness compared with the outcomes of alterna- tive actions, then we would expect that the kinds of actions that we call noble or praiseworthy are motivated by this aspira- tion toward the happiness of all, even when that requires the sacrifice of one’s personal happiness.

Therefore, Mill thinks that the example of self-sacrifice supports his account, rather than undermines it. Happiness—whether our own or that of others—is the ultimate end of our actions, and thus it is the feature of consequences by which we compare the moral value of actions. This leads us to the original version of the utilitarian principle of morality:

Do that which results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Ethics FYI

John Stuart Mill John Stuart Mill was born in 1806 into a philosophical family. His father, James Mill, was a philosopher and a friend and disciple of Jeremy Bentham. James Mill and Bentham were dissatisfied with the educational system of the time and wanted to reform it so that children were raised and educated according to strict utilitarian principles.

John Stuart became a kind of experiment in such an education, and he became a child prodigy: He was helping his father edit a history of India at age 3; had read half of Plato by age 6; was fluent in several languages; and knew advanced mathematics, science, and history by the time he was a teenager.

But at age 20, as he was editing one of Bentham’s works, he had a nervous breakdown from working so hard on it. By his own account, John Stuart emerged from this condition partly by reading the poetry of William Wordsworth, and this experience led him to depart in an important way from Bentham’s theory, as described in Going Deeper: Higher and Lower Pleasures. Afterward, Mill became notable not just as a philosopher but as an educator and politician, and he was an influential early advocate for women’s rights.

You can read more of his own compelling and illuminating autobiography here:

Going Deeper: Higher and Lower Pleasures

Jeremy Bentham maintained that all pleasures and pains were equal in value and the only question is how much pleasure and pain is produced from each action. This led some critics to complain that, on the utilitarian view, a world with more pleasure is superior to a world with less pleasure, regardless of where that pleasure comes from. Does this entail that utilitarianism promotes a life of animalistic indulgence as superior to one that pursues more noble and distinctively human endeavors? John Stuart Mill did not think so, defending his position by drawing a distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures. See Going Deeper: Higher and Lower Pleasures at the end of this chapter for more.

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