Utilitarianism is basically the moral view that in order to judge whether an action is good one should consider the consequences and then evaluate whether the act provides the most good to the greatest number of people. (It is more complex than that, as you can see from the description at this link, but the nuts and bolts are as above).
This summer I began a new job as an assistant professor at a university. I was thinking about which textbook to order, and I applied a kind of utilitarian reasoning to my selection process. I began by reading the texts and I selected only those that I thought would do good by providing educational benefit to the students. After this process there were three texts that were about tied in terms of educational benefit.
Next, I thought about how I could make the students happy, and decided they would like a low-cost text book. So I went on amazon and looked up the price of the three texts. One was around $90 and the other two were around $40. This narrowed it down to two, and the selection between them really would have resulted in probably a more-or-less equal amount of benefit at lowest cost to students, so I selected the one that had a faster shipping time (1-2 days).
I also support local bookstores and so I ordered the text to a local bookstore so the students could have immediate access to the text without having to wait for the shipping time.
In my reasoning I was trying to maximize the good for everyone involved. The publisher would sell a few hundred copies of the book, the local bookstore would have a few hundred sales, and the students would experience educational benefits and cost savings.
Imagine my surprise when my students informed me that the book cost $75 from the local bookstore! I thought:
“What? How is that possible? Why are the textbooks so expensive?”
So I called around to find out what was going on. How could the actual consequences of my action be so different from the consequences I intended?
Well, it turns out that SOME/MANY publishers will charge the bookstores (and therefore the students) MORE than retail price for required college and university texts. They know they have a captive market and so they nearly doubled the cost of the book.
To make matters even worse, the publisher will then hold back their supply of books from online stores such as amazon and chapters. So now when I go to the amazon site to see how long it will take to ship the book, it says it will ship in 4-6 weeks. This is when the class is half over and so will be too late for many students.
Philosophers often suggest that the unpredictability of the consequences of our actions provides an objection to utilitarian approaches. They say that it is not fair to hold someone accountable for consequences they could not foresee and did not intend. I could not have known how much the publisher would charge, so it is not my fault that the students had to spend so much money.
But this objection neglects that I can take responsibility in a different way: Now that I have greater knowledge I can alter the expected effects next year. For example, I asked whether ALL publishers charge double the retail price for required texts, and I found out they do not all do this. I also received a tentative listing of publishers who do not do this (from people’s vague memory). So, in the future I will only order textbooks from publishers who do not gouge students in this manner (Broadview press was mentioned as an honest and fair-dealing publisher by a number of professors, so I think I will give them a try).