The term “utility” may be taken to mean the capacity to satisfy human wants. Goods and services may possess utility. Human actions may also possess utility. Being kind to someone or saving someone’s life have different (positive) degrees of utility. Injuring someone presumably has negative utility unless the injury of that one person, for instance to impose a legally authorized punishment, were somehow importantly beneficial to others.
The doctrine of utilitarianism is often stated as the principle that choices of actions should be made on the basis of what will bring the greatest happiness, or the greatest pleasure, to the greatest number. Some utilitarians would emphasize that efforts need to be made to find the rules of conduct which, if followed, would produce the greatest happiness.
Recognizing that choices must sometimes be made between two evils, the utilitarians interpret the phrase “greatest happiness” to mean “greatest happiness or the least unhappiness.”
John Stuart Mill modified the doctrine somewhat by claiming that different pleasures had different qualities as well as different degrees or intensities. That is, pleasures need to be divided into higher and lower as well as greater and lesser.
The theory of ethics to be presented is in agreement with utilitarianism in saying that the rightness or wrongness of actions is to be judged in terms of the consequences. There are, however, significant differences between the two. First, whereas utilitarianism asks us to assess the pleasure or pain that a contemplated action would bring about, this new theory asks us to assess the effects that the contemplated action would have upon the flourishing or fading of human abilities. According to this theory persons and groups need to be nurtured and assisted in leading lives that contribute positively to the nurturing and assisting of others. To the extent that a communal nurturing and assisting reinforces itself and propagates there is a “flourishing” of abilities. To the extent that people lead lives that are mutually destructive there is a “fading” of abilities. Second, utilitarians imagine a sort of “calculus” whereby the number of persons receiving pleasure, the intensity of pleasure, and the duration of that pleasure could be weighed against the number of persons suffering and the intensity and duration of their pain. In contrast, this theory urges reliance upon shared beliefs, shared knowledge, and negotiated arrangements in deciding upon courses of action and methods of evaluating results. It also urges repeated assessments of abilities of affected parties to allow the results of current actions to be evaluated in the future.