Adapted from Business Ethics, Concepts and Cases: Manuel Velasquez (2006) Prentice Hall
Utilitarianism is a general term for any view that holds that actions and policies should be evaluated on the basis of the benefits and costs they will impose on society. In any situation, the “right” action or policy is the one that will produce the greatest net benefits or the lowest net costs (when all alternatives have only net costs).
Many businesses rely on such utilitarian cost-benefit analyses, and maintain that the socially responsible course to take is the utilitarian one with the lowest net costs.
Jeremy Bentham founded traditional utilitarianism. His version of the theory assumes that we can measure and add the quantities of benefits produced by an action and subtract the measured quantities of harm it will cause, allowing us to determine which action has the most benefits or lowest total costs and is therefore moral. The utility Bentham had in mind was not the greatest benefit for the person taking the action, but rather the greatest benefit for all involved. For Bentham: "An action is right from an ethical point of view if and only if the sum total of utilities produced by that act is greater than the sum total of utilities produced by any other act the agent could have performed in its place."
Also, it is important to note that only one action can have the lowest net costs and greatest net benefits.
To determine what the moral thing to do on any particular occasion might be, there are three considerations to follow:
1. You must determine what alternative actions are available. 2. You must estimate the direct and indirect costs and benefits the action would produce for all involved in the foreseeable future. 3. You must choose the alternative that produces the greatest sum total of utility.
Utilitarianism is attractive to many because it matches the views we tend to hold when discussing governmental policies and public goods. Most people agree, for example, that when the government is trying to determine on which public projects it should spend tax monies, the proper course of action would be for it to adopt those projects that objective studies show will provide the greatest benefits for the members of society at the least cost. It also fits in with the intuitive criteria that many employ when discussing moral conduct. Utilitarianism can explain why we hold certain types of activities, such as lying, to be immoral: it is so because of the costly effects it has in the long run. However, traditional utilitarians would deny that an action of a certain kind is always either right or wrong. Instead, each action would have to be weighed given its particular circumstances. Utilitarian views have also been highly influential in economics. A long line of economists, beginning in the 19th century, argued that economic behavior could be explained by assuming that human beings always attempt to maximize their utility and that the utilities of commodities can be measured by the prices people are willing to pay for them.
Utilitarianism is also the basis of the techniques of economic cost-benefit analysis. This type of analysis is used to determine the desirability of investing in a project (such as a dam, factory, or public park) by figuring whether its present and future economic benefits outweigh its present and future economic costs. To calculate these costs and benefits, discounted monetary prices are estimated for all the effects the project will have on the present and future environment and on present and future populations. Finally, we can note that utilitarianism fits nicely with a value that many people prize: efficiency. Efficiency can mean different things to different people, but for many it means operating in such a way that one produces the most one can with the resources at hand.
Though utilitarianism offers a superficially...