“Are we maximizing good and minimizing harm for all those affected?”
HOW TO USE THE UTILITY TEST
A. INTRODUCE THE TEST
Ask: “Are we maximizing good and minimizing harm for all those affected?”
For the utility test (or “Utilitarian Principle”), the consequences or outcomes determine what is right or wrong. For this principle the ends justify the means: an action is right if it creates the best overall outcome. Good outcomes can be measured by:
• happiness and unhappiness (pleasure and pain)
• the preferences of individuals
• money, as an indicator of preferences
B. WHY IS UTILITY A VALID WAY TO DECIDE RIGHT AND WRONG?
The utility test is a valid way to decide which actions are right or wrong because:
Everyone counts the same.
Everyone wants to be happy or avoid being unhappy.
Therefore, good is what makes the most happiness or least unhappiness regardless of who is affected.
In short, we can’t just look at consequences for ourselves or our group to decide what is ethical, because everyone affected by the action has equal standing as a person.
C. APPLY THE TEST
STEP 1: Identify the alternative actions that are possible and the persons and groups (the stakeholders) who will be affected by these actions.
STEP 2: For each of the most promising alternatives, determine the benefits and costs to each person or group affected. These calculations:
• require predicting probable outcomes based on facts and experience;
• should include both short-term and long-term consequences; and
• should consider the relative value or “marginal utility” of an outcome to different individuals and groups.
STEP 3: Select the action in the current situation that produces the greatest benefits over costs for all affected. If costs outweigh benefits, select the action with the least costs relative to benefits. This step shows the alternative that has the greatest net good for this one situation.
STEP 4: Ask what would happen if the action were a policy for all similar situations. Since what is done in one situation often becomes an example or even a policy for future actions, this step shows which alternative maximizes good for this and future situations.
D. DRAW A CONCLUSION
If the same action is selected in Steps 3 & 4, then this is the ethical action. If different actions are selected, then decide whether the individual action or the policy will produce the greatest good and the least harm, for all affected, over the long term.
E. STRENGTHS OF THE UTILITY TEST:
• Outcomes matter—I cannot be satisfied with simply following my personal ethical standards if bad consequences result.
• Factual data and assessing the probability of potential outcomes are important to deciding what is right/wrong.
• The welfare of animals and other entities should be included in ethical decisions since they are affected by outcomes.
• The emphasis on rational calculation and on including all stakeholders reminds us that our immediate intuitions about right and wrong cannot always be trusted.
• Requires striving for the best outcome and not simply a good outcome.
F. WEAKNESSES OF THE UTILITY TEST:
• Requires accurate probability assessments of likely outcomes that may be difficult or impossible to make in complex situations.
• In organisations where outcomes are measured by making the quarterly numbers, it may be difficult to focus on long term goods and harms—in the long run everyone hopes to outrun their mistakes by promotion, transfer, or retirement.
• Is subject to several common errors when being applied:
- Limited Stakeholder error–considering outcomes only for myself or my group.
- Short Term error–considering only direct or immediate consequences instead of including indirect and long term consequences.
- Single Alternative error–deciding an action is good because its benefits outweigh its costs without considering alternatives that may have a better benefit/cost ratio.
© 2009 J. Brooke Hamilton III, Ph.D.