Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What We Choose: An Adult Program on Ethics for Unitarian Universalists

Activity 2: Utilitarian Ethics

Part of What We Choose

Activity time: 25 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Review Handout 1, Excerpt from John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism and copy for all participants. Optional: Invite a volunteer to prepare in advance to read the excerpt aloud, and give them Handout 1 in advance.
  • Print Leader Resource 1, About John Stuart Mill, and familiarize yourself with it so you will feel comfortable presenting it to the group.

Description of Activity

Share Part I of Leader Resource 1, About John Stuart Mill.

Then, distribute Handout 1, Excerpt from John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. Invite a volunteer to read it aloud.

Invite comments and questions about the reading. After five minutes, present Part II of Leader Resource 1, About John Stuart Mill.

Introduce a discussion using these or similar words:

A utilitarian ethical framework invites us to think about the outcomes our actions will potentially create. Who will be affected by the expected outcome-and how? Which course of action would result in the greatest happiness or greatest good for the greatest number of people? Utilitarianism invites us to evaluate morality using a communal ethic based on the greater good, not just what may be good for us personally.

In writings explaining this ethical framework, John Stuart Mill argued that it is necessary to include those who are disenfranchised or in a minority position in the rights and privileges enjoyed by the majority, because protecting the rights and privileges of all is an essential requirement of both liberty and justice, which he perceived to be "good."

Lead a discussion using these questions:

  • Does the outcome of a moral decision and action matter more than what got us there? Why, or why not?
  • Where is the locus of moral authority in this ethical system? The self, the community, God, or some other source?
  • Are there areas of our lives where we use utilitarian thinking? Where in your life are you most concerned with doing what is right not just for yourself but for others? Why have you placed the needs of others before your own in those instances?
  • Our fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle affirms and promotes "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large." In which ways is the use of a democratic principle, in our congregations and in our country, an example of how we pursue the greatest good for the greatest number? In which ways is it not?
  • To what extent does democracy-as we understand and practice it, both in our congregations and in our society-reflect Mill's idea that protecting the rights of those who are disenfranchised or in a minority is necessary for liberty and justice, and is, therefore, "good"?
  • How does protecting the rights of all benefit all people?