Wat is nut ("utility")?

Volgens Bentham en Mill moet het nut van een handeling afgemeten worden aan de hoeveelheid plezier of geluk minus de hoeveelheid pijn die de handeling oplevert. Bentham en Mill staan daarom bekend als hedonisten. Overigens was Mill van mening dat er daarbij een onderscheid gemaakt moet worden tussen hogere en lagere vormen van genot of plezier.

Tegen de opvatting van Bentham en Mill zijn verschillende bezwaren ingebracht. Een bezwaar is dat geluk niet het enige is dat nastrevenswaardig is. Een andere bezwaar heeft te maken met het feit dat het bij het hedonisme van Bentham en Mill gaat om geluksbeleving. Tegen deze opvatting is het volgende bezwaar ingebracht door Nozick. Stel dat je iemand zou kunnen aansluiten op een machine die hem een grotere geluksbeleving geeft dan als die persoon werkelijk allerlei dingen meemaakt waaraan hij of zij geluk en ongeluk beleeft. Als het alleen om geluksbeleving gaat zou je dat vooral moeten doen. Volgens velen is het echter moreel wenselijker om dingen echt mee te maken – ook al word je daar soms ongelukkiger van – dan om alleen de geluksbeleving te ondervinden.

Een manier om aan de genoemde bezwaren tegemoet te komen is door nut (“utility”) niet op te vatten als een mentale toestand van geluksbeleving maar als de vervulling van bepaalde verlangens. Dit idee is onder andere geformuleerd door Ayer. Deze opvatting is niet gevoelig voor het argument dat mensen ook naar andere zaken streven dan geluk; immers nut is de vervulling van alles wat mensen wensen of verlangen. Ook is deze opvatting niet gevoelig voor het argument van de geluksmachine. Niets verbiedt het om een leven met werkelijke ervaringen, inclusief pijnlijke ervaringen, te verkiezen boven een leven van kunstmatige geluksbeleving.

Toch kleven er ook problemen aan de opvatting dat nut de vervulling van verlangens is. Volgens Brandt zijn onze verlangens niet stabiel en kunnen ze daarom onvoldoende houvast bieden voor wat nastrevenswaardig is. Een ander bezwaar is dat verlangens niet altijd rationeel zijn. Volgens sommige utilisten moeten we daarom alleen rekening houden met rationele of geïnformeerde verlangens.

Het idee dat nut de vervulling van verlangens is, is verwant aan de opvatting van nut in de rationele keuzetheorie. In rationele keuzetheorie wordt nut begrepen in termen van preferenties van mensen. Door bijvoorbeeld Harsanyi wordt een vorm van utilisme verdedigd die gebruikt maakt van die analogie. Harsanyi spreekt van preferentie-utilisme: nut wordt gedefinieerd in termen van de preferenties van mensen. Toch kan men zich afvragen of in de rationele keuzetheorie en in het preferentie-utilisme wel over dezelfde preferenties gaat. In de rationele keuzetheorie worden preferenties afgeleid uit de (feitelijke of hypothetische) keuzes die mensen maken; een nadere manier om preferenties te achterhalen is er niet. Harsanyi wil in zijn vorm van utilisme echter alleen preferenties meetellen die rationeel en niet immoreel zijn. Het is de vraag of die opvatting van preferenties te rijmen valt met rationele keuzetheorie.

Jeremy Bentham


III. By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.

(Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 1)


John Stuart Mill


The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. […]

It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. […]

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

(Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2)

Robert Nozick


Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life's experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you've decided and the moment you're plugged. What's a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that's what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent; witty, loving? It's not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there's no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to manmade reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance. This clarifies the intensity of the conflict over psychoactive drugs, which some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as avenues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to surrender!

(R. Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, Chapter 3)


A.J. Ayer


The stock objection to Bentham’s system is that it is based upon a false psychology. Not all human action is purposive; and of those actions which are purposive it is not true that they are always such as the agent thinks will bring him the most happiness.


I think that this objection is certainly valid against Bentham, but I do not think that it is so fatal an objection as some of his critics have supposed.


There is however, a subtle way of preserving the essential part of Bentham’s system, and that is to maintain his proposition that every one seeks happiness, not in the way that he maintained it, as a psychological generalization, but as a tautology. Thus, we may agree to understand the word “happiness” as referring, in this context, not to some particular object of desire, but to any object of desire whatsoever. That is to say, we can identify the “happiness” of a person whit the class of ends that he in fact pursues, whatever these may happen to be. No doubt this is not quite what is ordinarily meant by happiness, but that does not matter for our purpose. Then Bentham’s principle of utility becomes the principle that we are always to act in such a way as to give as many people as possible as much as possible of whatever it is that they want. I think that this interpretation preserves the essence of Bentham’s doctrine, and it has the advantage of making it independent of any special psychological theory.

(A.J. Ayer “The Principle of Utility”, in A.J. Ayer, Philosophical Essays)


R.B. Brandt


A decision is called for: whether fully rational persons will support a moral system which promises to maximize happiness in a society, or to provide the collection of events which sentient creatures in some sense most want. I shall contrast these as the “happiness theory” and the “desire theory”.


At the present time the desire theory enjoys widespread support among both philosophers and economists, in one or other of its possible forms; but I am going to opt for the unpopular happiness theory, on the ground that the other proposal is not a plausible, or even an intelligible one, when we work it out in detail.
The objection to Desire Theories
Let us initially and roughly define the “desire theory” as the theory which identifies welfare with desire-satisfaction and holds that ideally benevolent people would seek to maximize the desire-satisfaction of everyone.


The desire theory holds, then, that greater welfare corresponds to greater satisfaction of desire, and that a benevolent person, in deciding what to do, does or at least ought to perform that act among the options open to him which will maximize desire-satisfaction. The idea seems to be that we consider all the desires a person has (and everyone has many occurrent desires at every moment), at some time or other, or many times, over a lifetime, and what that person—more particularly, for our problem, a moral code—should aim at is to maximize the satisfaction of these desires. This conception is unintelligible.
That there is a problem begins to appear when we reflect that we think some desires need not count. Suppose my six-year-old son has decided he would like to celebrate his fiftieth birthday by taking a roller-coaster ride. This desire now is hardly one we think we need attend to in planning to maximize his lifetime well-being. Notice that we pay no attention to our own past desires. Are we then to take into account only the desires we think my son will have at the time his desire would be ‘satisfied’ , here at the age of fifty? If we take this line, we come close to the happiness theory—of providing that for each future moments he enjoys himself maximally at that moment.
The problem for the desire-satisfaction theory arises form two facts: first, that occurrent desires at a time t are for something to occur (to have occurred) at some other time; and second, that desires change over time.


In view of these facts, what is a would-be maximizer of satisfaction of desires to do? If the other person’s desires were fixed, you could identify his fixed long-term preference ordering of biographies for himself or the world, and then move him up to the highest indifference curve your resources permit. Since the desires are not fixed, you cannot pursue this programme.

(R.B. Brandt, A Theory of the Right and the Good, Chapter 13)

John C. Harsanyi


The utilitarian theory I have proposed defines social utility in terms of individual utilities, and defines each person's utility function in terms of his personal preferences. Thus, in the end, social utility is defined in terms of people's personal preferences. This approach may be called preference utilitarianism. It is not the same approach that was used by the century utilitarians. They were hedonists (hedonistic utilitarians) and defined both social utility and individual utility functions in terms of feelings of pleasure and pain. A third approach, called ideal utilitarianism, was proposed by the Cambridge philosopher Moore, who defined both social utility and individual utilities in terms of amounts of 'mental states of intrinsic worth', such as the mental states involved in philosophy science, aesthetic appreciation of works of art, experiences of personal friendship.

Both hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism are open to serious objections. The former presupposes a now completely outdated hedonistic psychology. It is by no means obvious that all we do we do only in order to attain pleasure and to avoid pain. It is at least arguable that in many cases we are more interested in achieving some objective state of affairs than we are interested in our own subjective feelings of pleasure and pain that result from achieving it. It seems that when I give a friend a present my main purpose is to give him pleasure rather than to give pleasure to myself (though this may very well be a secondary objective). Even if I want to accomplish something for myself, it is by no means self-evident that my main purpose is to produce some feelings of pleasure in myself, and it is not the actual accomplishment of some objective condition, such as having a good job, solving a problem, or winning a game, etc. In any case, there is no reason whatever why any theory of morality should try to prejudge the issue whether people are always after pleasure or whether they also have other objectives.

As to ideal utilitarianism, it is certainly not true as an empirical observation that people's only purpose in life is to have 'mental states of intrinsic worth'. But if this is not in fact the case, then it is hard to see how we could prove that, even though they may not in fact act in this way, this is how they should act.. Moreover, the criteria by which 'mental states of intrinsic worth' can be distinguished from other kinds of mental states are extremely unclear. (Moore’s own theory that they differ from other mental states in having some special 'nonnatural qualities' is a very unconvincing old-fashioned metaphysical assumption lacking any kind of supporting evidence.)

More fundamentally, preference utilitarianism is the only form of utilitarianism consistent with the important philosophical principle of preference autonomy. By this I mean the principle that, in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can be his own wants and his own preferences. To be sure, as I will argue below, a person may irrationally want something which is very 'bad for him'. But it seems to me, the only way we can make sense of such a statement is to interpret it as a claim to the effect that, in some appropriate sense, his own preferences at some deeper level are inconsistent with what he is now trying to achieve.

Any sensible ethical theory must make a distinction between rational wants, or between rational preferences and irrational preferences. It would be absurd to assert that we have the same moral obligation to help other people in satisfying their utterly unreasonable wants as we have to help them in satisfying their very reasonable desires. Hedonistic utilitarianism and ideal utilitarianism have no difficulty in maintaining this distinction. They can define rational wants simply as ones directed toward objects having a real ability to produce pleasure, or a real ability to produce 'mental states of intrinsic worth'; and they can define irrational wants as ones directed toward objects lacking this ability. But it may appear that this distinction is lost as soon as hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism are replaced by preference utilitarianism.

In actual fact there is no difficulty in maintaining this distinction even without an appeal to any other standard than an individual's own personal preferences. All we have to do is to distinguish between a person's manifest preferences and his true preferences. His manifest preferences are his actual preferences as manifested by his observed behaviour, including preferences possibly based on erroneous factual beliefs, or on careless logical analysis, or on strong emotions that at. the moment greatly hinder rational choice. In contrast, a person's true preferences are the preferences he would have if he had all the relevant factual information, always reasoned with the greatest possible care, and were in a state of mind most conducive to rational choice. Given this distinction, a person's rational wants are those consistent with his true preferences and, therefore, consistent with all the relevant factual information and with the best possible logical analysis of this information, whereas irrational wants are those that fail this test.

In my opinion, social utility must be defined in terms of people's true preferences rather than in terms of their manifest preferences. But, while it is only natural to appeal from a person’s irrational preferences to his underlying ‘true’ preferences, we must always use his own preferences in some suitable way as our final criterion in judging what his real interests are and what is really good for him.

Exclusion of antisocial preferences
I have argued that, in defining the concept of social utility, people’s irrational preferences must be replaced by what I have called their true preferences. But I think we have to go even further than this: some preferences, which may very well be their ‘true’ preferences under my definition, must be altogether excluded from our social-utility function. In particular, we must exclude all clearly antisocial preferences, such as sadism, envy, resentment, and malice.

According to utilitarian theory, the fundamental basis of all our moral commitments to other people is a general goodwill and human sympathy. But no amount of goodwill to individual X can impose the moral obligation on me to help him in hurting a third person, individual Y, out of sheer sadism, ill will, or malice. Utilitarian ethics makes all of us members of the same moral community. A person displaying ill will toward others does remain a remember of this community, but not with his whole personality. That part of his personality that harbours these hostile antisocial feelings must be excluded from membership, and has no claim for a hearing when it comes to defining our concept of social utility.

(J.C. Harsanyi, “Morality and the theory of rational behaviour” in Sen, A. and Williams, B. (eds) (1982) Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 54-56.)