While many texts cite Bentham as the "Father" of Utilitarianism, most jump right into Mill's version. I prefer to take some time to understand Bentham's position, and then use the distinction between Bentham and Mill to illustrate the difference between Act and Rule utilitarianism. Bentham is an interesting character in his own right, and there are plenty of places to find out more about this philosopher and political reformer who effectively paved the way for the eventual rise of the British Labor Party. The key aspect of his concept of Utilitarianism I'd like to draw attention to is what he referred to as the Hedonic Calculus. "Hedonism" simply refers to "pleasure", and it is pleasure that he saw (in line with the emerging scientific worldview) as the most common denominator among living creatures. A question quickly surfaces as to how pleasure could be the basis for any "Objective, Rational, Clear-cut and Impartial" theory of right and wrong. Nothing seems to be more subjective than pleasure. Yet, there is nothing more immediate that our individual evaluation of pleasure or pain, and nobody -- neither your physician nor your psychologist -- can tell you that you are not in pain, or that you must be experiencing pleasure. The "objectivity" rests not with the experience or the source of pleasure at all: it rests in the process by which we determine who much pleasure and how much pain we experience, and that is what Bentham called the Calculus. Think first of any simple equation with variables, such as A2 + B2 = C2. What is the value of C? The response is always, "It depends...!". Does that mean the value of"C" is subjective, or relative? Perhaps, but does it mean that the process of determining "C" is relative? Not at all. It is the formula that is objective, and that objectively (rationally, clearly, impartially) determines the result. Bentham's formula, the hedonic calculus, endeavors to do the same with both private and public determinations of what is good. 


Think of old-fashioned scales used to determine the weight of something, an item is placed on one side of the scale and then known weights are added to the opposite side to determine whether it is heavier, lighter, or equal to the item. Bentham's major assumption is that "units of pleasure" can be QUANTIFIED. To "buy into" this, simply reflect on any point in your life where you have to make an important decision -- did you, or could you, list the "pro's" (pleasures) and the "con's" (pains) separately to view how the positives outweighed the negatives? Sometimes just the process of objectively making such a list clarifies the ambiguity and removes the emotional weight of such decisions, allowing for rational decision-making.

So, what makes a specific action or decision a "good" one? A choice is good if it yields more pleasure than pain. Voting is a good example of utilitarianism in action, where each voter has equal weight and autonomously registers their pleasure with a candidate or referendum item. The majority of voters are pleased, yielding the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people. Yes, it is not determinable ahead of time if that particular candidate or referendum item will actually produce more pleasure than harm, so one can't really tell if an action is good until it's impact has occurred. With Natural Law ethics, the end is determined to be good ahead of time as long as the end was in line with a specific "telos", or goal. Here, the end is clear (pleasure is better than pain) but indeterminate in advance. Still, both systems are considered to be "teleological" or "consequential" theories of ethics. Obviously, the more variables one can "plug-in" to the hedonic calculus, the more accurate the determination of a future good.

"Triage" is also an example of utility in action. This is a practice by which, usually in emergency situations, someone evaluates the needs of those involved and sorts them out into three groups: those most in need, least in need, and those that have great, but manageable need. Consider a war zone, or a bus accident, where there are limited rescue resources. "Triage" would separate the "walking wounded" and give absolutely minimal treatment at first. Those that are in need of immediate, complex and sustained intensive care may be separated and... ignored. Why? So resources can be devoted to the third group that remains -- people that have dire need, but have the best chance of recovery with immediate, short-term emergency care. This may seems callous, but it is ultimately serving the greatest amount of people as efficiently as possible. Sure, in an ideal world, everyone gets immediate help, but as we know, there are often limited health care services, even in the best of situations. There are "triage" nurses in ER's who do primary evaluation and prioritize the needs of those requesting services. If you've spent hours in the ER waiting, it is because ER services are triaged, and it's not a "first-come, first-served" operation. 

There's an old movie, "Abandon Ship!," that deals with one of those isolated situations in which forces the people concerned to make very harsh utilitarian decisions. After a shipwreck, Tyrone Powers must decide which passengers are fit to row to Africa, and who must be thrown overboard, sacrificed so that others may survive. Another example is "Alive!," the story about the plane crash in the Andes mountains...These examples are extreme, of course, but "desperate times call for desperate measures". Utility allows for the calculation of the alternatives that may not be intrinsically good, but factors out the most practical, functional or "useful" ('utility') end result for a given situation.

Utilitarianism does value autonomy, and contends that "if it ain't nobody's business but your own," you are free to apply the Calculus to your own decisions. I've often cited the rock-and-roll classic, "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights" (by 'Meatloaf') as an example that clearly illustrates the intensity, duration, certainty, etc., consequent to making a promise of eternal love in the back seat of a car, late on a Saturday night...(!)It also illustrates how poor we are at objectively weighing our own best interests! 

Now consider this classic case from the annals of Business Ethics: In the early 70s FORD designed a new compact car the PINTO -- to keep up with market demand. In the testing phase they realized that when impacted from the rear, the gas tank had a high risk of exploding. Seeking an objective process for determining whether to alter the vehicle to reduce the risk, FORD executed a cost-benefit analysis. Here is the break-down:


Savings: 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries, 2,100 burned vehicles. 

Unit Cost: $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury, $700 per vehicle. 

Total Benefit: 180 X ($200,000) + 180 X ($67,000) + $2,100 X ($700)= $49.5 million.


Sales: 11 million cars, 1.5 million light trucks. 

Unit Cost: $11 per car, $11 per truck. 

Total Cost: 11,000,000 X ($11) + 1,500,000 X ($11) = $137 million.

The bottom line was that the nearly $50 million saved by adding an $11 device was outweighed by the $137 million cost.

By using the government's numbers as an objective standard, and by taking the time to objectively weigh a decision that most other manufacturers would have simply skipped, FORD thought it was being Socially Responsible. The car works as promised, and in-itself was not dangerous. If anyone wanted a safer car, FORD certainly would sell then a larger car. The fault really lay with other drivers, yet FORD inquired as to how far they could go to deliver a safer vehicle within the parameters set. Reportedly Lee Iacocca, then VP at FORD, defined the project's mission as delivering a "two-thousand pound, two-thousand dollar car by '72".

This is a fine example of "Act" utilitarianism, wherein the good is calculated for a specific action at a specific time. Bentham recognized that the hedonic calculus would place a greater burden on the individual to make ethical decisions. Indeed, nearly every action becomes subject to analysis. "Should I cut class today? Shall I cancel that appointment? In this instance should I lie, cheat or steal?" This onus is one that most individuals shy from as either too demanding, or too "calculating". Nonetheless, Act Utility is a form of moral cost-benefit analysis that business, by its nature, is already prone to factor. This too is why Utilitarianism relates well to Adam Smith's version of Capitalism -- roughly, "let the greedy prosper, as long as there is free competition then the rest of society will benefit as well".

Does society benefit from the "Pinto" decision? On the one hand, there was the drive to meet the desires of consumers for affordable, reliable and smaller transportation. This too was to help pull the U.S. auto industry into a new market, which obviously would help the economy and the employees and stockholders of the auto industry. On the other hand, when this decision was eventually made public some six years after it was first made, the public reaction was strong and unequivocal. Obviously FORD had not factored in something significant into it's calculations. To "fix" the problems of Bentham's "Act Utilitarian" approach, it's best to consider John Stuart Mill's version.