Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that says that the right thing to do in any situation is whatever will “do the most good” (that is, whatever will produce the best outcomes) taking into consideration the interests of all concerned parties.
Utilitarianism is part of a larger family of consequentialist ethical theories—theories according to which the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by their tendency to produce good or bad consequences or outcomes. Utilitarianism says in particular that the right action in any situation is the one that will produce the best outcomes, as measured by impact on everyone involved. The latter part is important: utilitarians believe that everyone’s interests count.
Historically, utilitarian philosophers played an important role in many struggles that are today recognized as ethically significant. Utilitarians argued, for instance, in favour of rights for women and for people of various races. All people—all happiness and all misery—count equally, in the eyes of utilitarians. This was a radical view, in an era in which only white, property-owning males were really thought of as being entitled to a full range of rights.
In business contexts, utilitarianism implies an obligation for businesses to do what they can to act in a way that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. So, utilitarianism provides a basis for criticizing business behaviours that cause harm to anyone at all.
A hard-core utilitarian would say that outcomes are all that matter. If option A will create more happiness (or less misery) overall than option B, then option A is ethically correct. Others who think that utilitarian reasons matter, but are incomplete, would say that there is a good reason in favour of option A, but that other considerations (such as human rights) matter too and might sway our overall ethical judgement on the matter.
The utilitarian perspective is perhaps best understood when examined in contrast to rights-based perspectives. Consider the question of child labour. A rights-based perspective might say that it is wrong to hire children to do difficult labour, such as working in a factory or in a cotton field. A utilitarian perspective would focus on outcomes: if more good (more happiness) is created overall by giving a child a job, then it is right to do so, even if we agree that in principle it would be better if the child didn’t need the job.
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By Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux
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