Utilitarianism is where you consider the welfare of the group ahead of the individuals. An example of this might be deciding what illnesses to treat. If there are two illnesses one that affects the young and one that affects the old. The most Ethical treatment to fund would be the one that affects the young as they will have more time remaining to contribute to society.
Fundamentally, utilitarianism favours ethical decisions that result in the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. The damming of the Yangtze River is a perfect example. 1 milion were compromised, while millions more were beneficiaries.
Utilitarianism holds that the best course of action is that which maximises utility, or happiness, for the greatest number of people. It would be interesting then to imagine what would have happened in Harper Lee’s literary classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, if one of the novel’s heroic characters, Atticus Finch, was an extreme utilitarian. Atticus is a respected lawyer in a small Alabama town during The Great Depression. Throughout the novel he shows that he has strong morals which he both practices and teaches to his children. The setting is a place and time of high racial tensions, but, despite pressure put on him from the townspeople, Atticus agrees to defend in court a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Atticus believes in the man’s innocence, but, the townspeople are very unhappy with his decision to defend the accused man. The situation turns volatile as townspeople attempt to exact vigilante justice – at times even putting Atticus’ own children in danger. Atticus has two options: defend the man’s innocence, leading to civil unrest throughout the town but bringing some small amount of comfort to the accused, the accused’s family, and Atticus’ own sense of right and wrong; or, refuse to defend the man, let him be convicted and sacrifice the ‘utility’ of a small number of people so that the rest of the townspeople’s unrest can be eased.
If Atticus was a utilitarian seeking to maximise happiness or utility, would he choose not to defend the accused man and thus restore at least temporary peace to his town? Or would he view things through a wider lens, and see that his decision to defend the black man could have a positive contributory effect on the American civil rights movement that would soon be in full swing, thus adding to the utility of all future generations of African-Americans? This is one difficulty with utilitarianism: what boundaries are applied during decision making and how do those boundaries help dictate which course of action is correct?