While Utilitarianism as a practical philosophy can find application in affairs of democratic policy making and economics, its stature are a satisfactory system of morality is contested. The scholarly consensus as of date is that Utilitarianism is a partial system of morality and is somewhat inadequate on account of its authors’ reluctance to front up to complexities of ethics. Utilitarianism asserts that ‘It is morally good to act for the general happiness.’ As this assessment is taken at face value by most, the salient critical question is ‘What is it that is morally not good, which stands in opposition to this?’ In answering this question proponents say, ‘acting for unhappiness’. (Grote 123) Utilitarian moral philosophy thus has for its subject the ascertaining of what happiness is, which is placed in polar opposition to unhappiness. Having found what constitutes happiness, the philosophy strives to device methods to achieve that end. But real life experiences and events are not strictly broken into these clear-cut dichotomies and therein lie the major objection to Utilitarianism’s veracity as a ethical theory. The following passages will explain the two central concepts of ‘impartiality’ and ‘universality’ and identify their shortcomings for application in practical ethics.
The founding texts of Utilitarianism think of it as inherently ethical. For example, deriving from post-revolutionary French thought, especially that of Helvetius, Godwin asserted that “Morality is that system of conduct which is determined by a consideration of the greatest general good.” (Godwin, as quoted in Scarre 67) The founding doctrine also makes it clear that the two pillars of ‘impartiality’ and ‘universality’ especially add to its ethical soundness. Utilitarianism espouses the principle of impartiality, to the extent that it places the happiness of all individuals in the community on par with each other. Moreover, it encourages constituent individuals in a group to see the virtue of valuing the happiness of others as much as theirs own. In other words, the expectation is to rise above the consideration of one’s own individual interests. Put as such, this principle sounds laudable. But as critics point out, there is plenty of scope for incorrect application of this principle, which could lead to adverse outcomes. For example,
“In an action then which, in the truest and widest sense, we should call right or good, there is more than one sort of goodness. And unless we treat rightly this variety of rightness or goodness, our moral philosophy, whatever side we take, must be partial: and we shall not be able to argue against opponents of it without being in danger of arguing against something which, it is probable, an impartial and practical reader will consider morally proper.” (Grote 124)
Even actions by individuals are mediated by this consideration for the greatest common good. The agent’s actions are never to enhance his/her own happiness, but that of all concerned. As John Stuart Mill himself clarifies in his treaties,
“As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” (Mill, as quoted by Grote 86)