Utility, Utilitarian, Utilitarianism
These words all relate in the vernacular to use. In everyday conversation, utility just means usefulness. Somewhat confusingly, these simple terms were appropriated by two nineteenth-century philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for a specific normative ethical theory, which they called Utilitarianism.
According to utilitarianism, the right action is the one which maximizes the utility of the greatest number of people, where utility is understood to mean either happiness or pleasure, and those terms are generally not taken to coincide. Some utilitarians advocate pure hedonism, with pleasure being the ultimate measure of any- and everything. J.S. Mill felt that there were "higher" and "lower" pleasures, and that higher pleasures (intellectual endeavors) were more valuable than what might be termed the "animal" pleasures. However one decides to understand utility, the idea is simple enough and is expressed by the principle of utility:
Always act so as to maximize the net outcome for all relevant persons taken together as a group.
I've been thinking about utilitarianism today as I sit at home in "lock-down" with my fellow Bostonians while law enforcement officers conduct a manhunt for the missing suspect in the case of the bombing perpetrated during the marathon on Monday. The people interviewed today (friends, family, and former teachers of the suspects) make it sound as though these two brothers would never do anything so heinous, but someone obviously did, so we'll have to see how the evidence stacks up. I've no doubt that the suspects sought in this case can be demonstrated to be guilty, if indeed they are guilty. Now that one of them is dead, I certainly hope that they were the culprits, and not someone else.
Here is a famous thought experiment discussed whenever the philosophical theory of utilitarianism is introduced. It illustrates the distinctive properties of this particular approach to morality and goes basically like this:
Imagine that a vicious killer is at large, and the people of a city have been crying out in outrage for days. The mayor wishes to quell the riots erupting all over the place, and with them the deaths which may be caused by the angry crowd. He therefore selects some poor schmuck to serve as a patsy. Evidence is marshaled, and the suspect is put on display. The public expels a collective sigh of relief.
Those calling for the murderer's head have now been appeased, and the riotous crowds have dispersed. The city returns to its normal business, though the real killer has not been apprehended, but the mayor has acted in this way so as to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people.
During the period when they believed that the killer roamed at large, the citizens were unable to sleep at night or get anything done, filled with anxiety as they were that they might be the next in line to become his victim. Once someone was fingered for the crimes, everyone settled down, and the only person who suffered as a result of the mayor's decision was the innocent person framed.
The test for your own assessment of utilitarianism is how you react to this sort of scenario. Another similar example involves torturing one person to save many more. These sorts of awful dilemmas have unfortunately arisen in history, particularly under repressive regimes when, out of fear for their own lives, people have agreed to do what they would not otherwise have done.
The thought experiments are not personalized and so are intended to allow people to reflect upon whether they find utilitarianism to be intuitively sound. Obviously, human rights are not intrinsic to this moral outlook. Human rights are valuable to a utilitarian only insofar as they may maximize the happiness of the greatest number.
How does this approach to morality apply specifically to the case of perfume? I think that there are several ethical dilemmas which may raise the question of the validity of utilitarianism.
- Some people maintain that animal testing of cosmetics (including perfume) is justified, because it maximizes the happiness of the greatest number at the expense of a few (the animals experimented on).
- The people who produce fake perfumes and fob them off to unsuspecting consumers may believe that they are doing the right thing because most people cannot tell the difference anyway, and they are able to purchase the fakes at a significant discount. (I'm not saying that they actually reason this way, but it is a possible rationalization for what they do, and it may well allow some of them to sleep better at night...)
- Similarly, perfume companies may lie about whether they have reformulated their perfumes (or the extent to which they have) under the assumption that most people will never know anyway, so the net outcome is better, all things considered.
- In our wearing of perfume, we may think about the people likely to be around us when we select our scent of the day. Going to the library, for example, I am unlikely to choose a perfume with huge sillage because I do not want to offend other people, and I especially do not want to bother people with allergies. Sure I might prefer to wear something louder that day, but I will be in a public place, so I reason that the net consequences will be better if I sacrifice my own pleasure in order to accommodate those who may not agree with my perfume choice.
What about you, my fragrant friends, can you think of other utilitarian examples applicable to the case of perfume?