The Motive of Utilitarianism and My Belief in It



In our daily undertakings, we are constantly presented with moral dilemmas which place us in a position of decision making that can be confusing. If the distinction between right and wrong was very clear, then such dilemmas would not exist. In such situations, we have to weigh our actions as well as the outcomes carefully, to ensure that we do not end up being immoral. Various philosophers have come up with different schools of thoughts in regards to principles that we should apply in dealing with moral dilemmas. Such include moral theories such as utilitarianism and deontology. However, each of these theories has its strengths as well as shortcomings which require to be carefully scrutinized before deciding which one to apply. It is important to study utilitarianism, what it encompasses, and the motives of a utilitarian.

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Utilitarianism is a moral theory that follows the principle of utility, which is where its name is derived from. According to this principle, we are supposed to undertake the action whose outcomes give the most utility. John Mill Stuart, who utilitarianism is credited to, proposed that an action is judged to be right based on the happiness or pleasure that such an action brings about (Cahn 418). This is to say that the morality of any action is judged by its outcomes, rather than the action itself. A good example of utilitarianism is as follows: suppose that in a given hospital, there is a patient who is in a comma and furthermore, in a vegetable state. The doctor advises that the chances of this patient recovering are almost zero. His family has been struggling to foot the ever-increasing bills that are overburdening them. The situation is taking a toll on the children who are stressed up and cannot enjoy most of the luxuries due to limited finances. Upon inquiry, the doctor proposes that the best course of action is to pull the plug and allow the patient to die. This is a moral dilemma for the patient’s family. One of the options would be to not let the patient die and instead continue paying the burdening bills. The problem with this is that even if the patient recovers, he would be in a vegetable state hence it would be unfair to the patient and still burdening for the family. On the other hand, if the plug is pulled, the burden of hospital bills will be lifted and the patient will rest in peace, even though the family will mourn for him. For a utilitarian, the morally right course of action would be to pull the plug and allow the man to die.

The motive of utilitarianism

Like all the ethical theories, the motive of utilitarianism is to encourage and guide people in taking the morally upright action or rather the noble act. This doctrine further aims to bring happiness to this world rather than pain. To do this, mill recognizes that the person undertaking a given action has to act in the noblest way in making their decision while considering the outcomes that such a decision may bring about (Cahn 419).

One of the facts that I find great about utilitarianism is that it aims to bring the greatest happiness to the majority. According to the utilitarian standard, the happiness of others is much more significant than that of the agent. The agent, in this case, is the person undertaking the moral decision. Thus, such an agent must not take his or her own happiness into much consideration. In fact, John Stuart Mill is hasty to label the actions of Jesus Christ dying on the cross for mankind as following the principle of utility (Cahn 419). After all, Jesus went through all the suffering and pain so that people should experience more happiness. I would want to personally emulate such noble actions. This is not to mean that it always easy since most of the time we want the best for ourselves. There is always a great temptation to pick the decision that favors us best. It is in such situations that Mill encourages us to be noble (Cahn 420). He does this by appealing to our reason and asking for the better option between making a selfish decision to have it all but losing one’s humanity and making a selfish decision that leaves us dissatisfied but full of humanity. Thus, I feel encouraged by utilitarianism to be a better person who is selfless.

In its efforts to bring happiness to the society at large, utilitarianism not only ignores the happiness of the person undertaking the decision who is referred to as the agent, but also the happiness of the few people who might have to pay the price for that happiness. For instance, let’s take the case made by Bernard Williams. Jim is given the option of shooting one Indian to save the other nineteen (Smith and Williams 211). In such a case, utilitarianism supports this action. By doing this, it not only ignores Jim’s happiness but also the happiness of the Indian who will die. As much as such a decision appears logical, we still have to consider that it is a person losing his life. This one life cannot simply just be sacrificed.

This doctrine also imposes a duty upon us towards society. Utilitarianism expects a person to act for the common good of society at all times. There are situations whereby I would not mind acting for the good of everybody, but at other times I have to think of my own needs. Mill counters this objection by claiming that it is not a basis for protesting against utilitarianism. I, however, feel that it is a great and burdening duty to be placed upon a person. After all, doing the right thing should be more of intuition rather than heavy responsibility.

In the process of bringing the most happiness to the society, utilitarianism ignores the effect that certain decisions may have on the person taking those decisions (the agent) or those who may know the decision that the agent has taken. This is what Bernard refers to as remote effects in his case against utilitarianism (Smith and Williams 211). If I am given the choice to kill that one person in order to save the nineteen others and I go ahead and do it, it will definitely take a toll on me. Such an action will most likely haunt me for a long time and it might even lead to depression. Utilitarianism fails to take the psychological effect into consideration. The defense that such effect cannot be anticipated is not satisfactory. Another defense that Mill puts forward is that the person making the decision should do so without minding much about their feelings. This means that utilitarianism expects the decision maker to act as merely an agent who is disinterested. This is however not very simple given that human beings indeed have feelings.

Another weakness of utilitarianism is that it fails to anticipate the events that might unfold following the utilitarian decision. This is what Bernard refers to as the precedent effect (). It is possible that doing the action that brings the most happiness will also set in motion other events which may cause pain. Suppose that one person in a given rebellion, one person is willing to sacrifice their life so that others may be saved. But after being killed, the people he was dying for rise up to fight to avenge his death and in that chaos, even more people die. In such a situation, the decision was utilitarian but it failed to anticipate the events that may follow that decision. This is one of the things that Bernard is against (Smith and Williams 213). The utilitarian defense is that such events cannot be accurately anticipated since they bring about confusion. Utilitarianism, therefore, only deals with the immediate consequences of a given decision. I find this as a shortcoming of the theory. If finally there is little utility with so much pain, then it is only fair to conclude that such a decision was wrong from the start. Similar to the game of chess, one should instead think at least two steps ahead before making any decision.

My Views on Utilitarianism

In my perspective and understanding, I do not believe in utilitarianism. Although its motive is noble, there are several important things that this theory fails to put into consideration. Utilitarianism aims for morality and encourages people to do the right thing for the happiness of society. However, it fails to consider whether the action is wrong. In utilitarian standards, it is right to kill if the intention is to save many people and bring joy to them. Similarly, it is fine to steal if the stealing with result in the happiness of many people. When we start justifying acts such as murder, then we tend to lose the way. I believe that if an action is wrong, then it is wrong. There can be no compromise when it comes to certain matters. Furthermore, it fails to consider the psychological effect for the person making the tough decision. For this reasons, I do not believe in utilitarianism.


The motive of utilitarianism is to encourage people to be morally upright as well as assist in decision making especially while dealing with moral dilemmas. It does this by using the principle of utility whereby an action is either right or wrong based on the utility or the happiness it results in. I, however, do not believe in utilitarianism due to several of its shortcomings including the fact that it may allow a wrong action such as killing, it fails to consider the feeling of the person making the decision, and it fails to anticipate all the events that may result later on from the decision.


Works Cited

Cahn, Steven M. “Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology.” (2011).

Smart, John Jamieson Carswell, and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.


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