Using ice cream to learn what Utility can teach Utilitarianism

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Utilitarianism will tell you anything used/done/channeled for a majority, is in line with the greater good. A child of the same etymology, ‘utility’ might disagree.

What do these words mean?

If we associate utilitarianism with Bentham’s philosophy, and utility with Bernoulli’s ‘utils’ in economics, we understand there is a knowledge gap. Let’s start by understanding Utilitarianism which says ‘Greatest good for the greatest number’ with concrete blinkers to any minority. The idea of utility in economics asks how utilise-able something is. This is open to subjective interpretations of choice and satisfaction.

What is their focus?

The first division is that utilitarianism cares about decisions, and how they effect people at large. Such is the case when something favours a country’s majority, but ignores the minority. Utilitarianism would not object to such a state. Whereas, utility sees the effect received by one person. That effect is a ‘util’ of satisfaction, in economic terms. It is like the joy received by eating an ice cream. Your utils will be higher, as your satisfaction from a bar (or more) of ice cream increases.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 3.38.08 pmWhereas, utilitarianism will say that a community receives high utils, when the majority is satisfied. However, utility here will depend on individual choices and total utility. Which means if I like ice cream and eat 3 of them, I have maximised my potential choice, and fulfilled the expected satisfaction. This is keeping in mind, that my appetite would not allow more than 3 ice creams. Utility understands that ‘total utility’ is subjective.

Total utility results from one’s individual choice, and one’s ability to fulfil that choice. My greed might want me to eat more than 3 bars of ice cream, but my ability stops at three. Utility accounts for choices, ability, and satisfaction.

The subjectivity seen here, is not seen in utilitarianism. Utilitarianism would probably prance around giving the majority 3 bars assuming it is justice. Greatest good for the greatest number – is the motto of utilitarianism. However, person A might find enough good-ness in one bar, whereas person B might want 5.

Rule utilitarianism (a sub-type) wants everyone to be happy in a sense of uniformity, because then one action gives everyone happiness. It focuses on the amount of good it can unleash, and thus depends on generalisation – which is the fault here, if one action alone is directed to give everyone happiness, and lies on the crutches of ‘good for the majority’. That would only work if all our choices were the same. It blankets all humans, and their choices, not leaving any room for ability and subjectivity.

However, we can use utilitarianism better, by focusing on ‘Act Utilitarianism’. This type of utilitarianism sees each action as an individual decision, and how that can do good for a majority. For example, if you were given 100 rupees, to do as you please. And you chose to spend it on 3 ice creams, where you could buy books and donate them to charity. Act Utilitarianism would say spend it all on charity, as it is creating the greatest good for the greatest number.

But this completely negates your own incentive to do that charity. Not everyone is altruistic. If you have 100 rupees, not all of it should go to charity, unless you are not happy with it. All of utilitarianism turns a blind eye to the initiator of any ‘good act’, in order to reach the ‘majority’. The initiator too must receive their share of utils.

And so we can understand that act utilitarianism may be the closest form of sane utilitarianism . But, beyond an act of the greater good, we must account for ourselves. If there is no desire only then can only go wholeheartedly initiating actions for the greater good. Otherwise this is a guilty trap where under the pressure to do good, you can continue doing so, and yet yourself be unhappy.

Utility can teach utilitarianism that each individuals counts, and has different aspects contributing to ‘utils’. Ability and choice may be the greatest influencers. From a 100 rupees, sparing yourself some won’t harm, as long as it keeps you motivated to keep doing good. Do some charity, but you do deserve an ice cream once in a while.

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