We will talk about what utilitarianism is, how the utilitarians argue for their view, and how they defend it against the most prominent type of objection they face.
Utilitarianism is characterized by two elements:
A hedonistic account of good and bad: good and bad ultimately consist in pleasurable or painful feelings.
A consequentialist account of right and wrong: an action or policy is right if it produces better consequences than the alternatives and wrong if it does not.
You can see how this would work in practice by looking at Bentham, chapter 4, §V.
Generally speaking, utilitarians argue that their view is implicit in common sense morality, meaning the moral codes that we all follow in our everyday lives. For the most part, they say, these codes are implicitly utilitarian: they work to produce the best results overall. When they do not work this way, according to the utilitarians, they should be regarded as irrational.
In making their points, the utilitarians adopt two different postures towards common sense morality. On the one hand, common sense morality provides the ultimate support for utilitarianism. The reason we are given for believing utilitarianism is that it is implicit in our common sense moral codes. The idea is that we are supposed to be committed to utilitarianism even if we are not aware of it. In that way, utilitarianism is only as strong as common sense morality is.
On the other hand, the utilitarians try to show that our common sense moral codes are not all that we take them to be. For example, Mill challenges the common sense view of justice. We think that our beliefs about justice reflect independent standards of conduct that we call the principles of justice. In reality, he argues, our beliefs about justice are the product of a variety of internal psychological forces. They are not formed in response to any external standards at all. Thus when our ideas about justice conflict with utilitarianism, he maintains, only the utilitarian view will actually make sense. Here, common sense morality is described as being less than it seems to be.
In sum, the utilitarians both rely on common sense morality and undermine it. There is obviously some tension between these two things and it is not obvious that they can manage it.
Mill realizes that the chief objection to utilitarianism is that it diverges too much from common sense morality, specifically concerning justice. Roughly speaking, if the social good comes into conflict with the interests of an individual, the social good will always win. That raises legitimate concerns about whether individual rights will be ignored in order to maximize utility for the group.
Mill takes three stabs at addressing this problem. In my opinion, the second and third are the most successful.
His second argument maintains that our common thinking about justice is muddled and frequently contradictory. Adopting utilitarianism, he maintains, is the only way to clean up the mess. Strictly speaking, he only shows that it is a way. If someone else were to come up with an equally sophisticated way of putting things in order, then this argument would not necessarily favor utilitarianism over that alternative. To tip my hand a bit, this is something that we will see John Rawls try to do later in the term.
Mill’s third argument is the familiar one that common sense ideas about justice are implicitly utilitarian. We think that justice requires respect for and enforcement of our rights. Our rights, in turn, protect our most important interests in personal security and property. But if an interest is genuinely important, Mill reasons, utilitarianism will protect it too: it promotes the good of the group by protecting the most important interests of the individuals that make up the group. Of course, people think that their individual rights trump the interests of the group too. But there, Mill says, they are just mistaken.
There is a kind of objection to utilitarianism that occurs over and over again. This involves finding some horrible thing that would produce more net pleasure than any alternative. For example, it is possible that we might maximize utility by punishing an innocent person even though this a clearly unjust thing to do by the standards of common sense morality. Perhaps punishing the innocent would deter crime. Or perhaps a mob believes that an innocent person is guilty and they will riot if he is not framed and punished. The point is that utilitarians will think that we are all required to do the apparently immoral thing. That rubs most people the wrong way.
There are two ways of responding to this.
Deny that the apparently immoral thing really would maximize utility. Think of the downsides, in utilitarian terms, of punishing the innocent. If they outweigh the gains, utilitarians will not do it.
Accept the consequences. If it would be the case that doing the awful thing, like punishing the innocent, really is necessary to prevent disaster, the utilitarian will respond that it makes sense to do it. It’s either that or disaster, after all.