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The principle of utility and an application to Applebee’s

April 14, 2011

            J.S. Mill, a classic utilitarian, holds that the action that promotes the highest level of utility, or happiness, for those in a society constitutes right action.  In this blog, I would like to attempt to apply this to a restaurant setting, using the entirety of restaurant guests as my conception of “society”. One might be wondering why I might be applying such a concept to a restaurant like Applebee’s. Well, to answer your question, I have been working at Applebee’s now as a server for about two years, and have quickly came to understand that if I want to make money, that I will make sure that each of my tables maintains a maximum level of utility, or happiness.

             Applebees policy states that, “every guest leaves happy”. In other words, it is their policy that each and every guest that enters their restaurant maintains a high level of utility. If we were to compare this to a society, we could quickly apply this to Mill’s thoughts. In essence, we could apply them and then conclude that whatever makes the guest happy can be considered to be the right action.

             Let me expound on this a bit. Let’s say that I have a four-top table, and that after I deliver their food, they ask me for 6 ramekins of ranch. Now, according to Applebee’s specifications, I am only supposed to deliver 2 extra ramekins of ranch per table. However, this table wants 6. So, what do I do? Do I tell that that we only are able to give them 2, and that if they want the extra 4, that they would have to pay for them? Or do I go in the back and just make them 6? Well, according to Mill’s principle of utility, maximum happiness constitutes right action, regardless of what Applebee’s specifications state. Therefore, according to Mill, as well as other utilitarians, in order to ensure a maximum level of happiness for my guests, I will bring that that 6 ramekins of ranch, and can’t be punished for choosing the wrong action to pursue, as it is the right action. Though this might not go over so well with my managers after they see that I have been dishing out extra ramekins of ranch like hotcakes, it seems as though I could couple Mill’s reasoning with their philosophy of “every guest leaves happy”, and excuse myself from being punished. Would this, in reality, really work? That is something that I’m not too sure about. However, it would be worth a try!

  1. cfrankel permalink
    April 15, 2011 11:19 AM

    Interesting connection to Mill’s ideas for promoting the highest level of utility. I can tell you right now that I have been in the situation where a waiter attempts to charge extra for various sides that should be accommodated for free. I can not explain to you how much it bothered me that a restaurant could be so petty for just a side of something like ranch. I would agree with your decision to just give the customers the free sides. Despite your boss being mad, you could simply explain to them how customers in the past have reacted to when you tried to charge them extra. A business like Applebee’s thrives off reputation and anything done that would slander the name is not in their best interest. I don’t know if that explanation would go over well with your boss, but if not then that’s their loss.

  2. alexqhe permalink
    April 15, 2011 4:34 PM

    I don’t disagree with your actions (as I would have probably done the same thing), but I do disagree with your reasoning. Utilitarianism is all about providing the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people, and while you take into account the happiness of all the people that you’re serving, you neglect to think of the happiness of your employers. I’m sure that they wouldn’t be too pleased that you’re breaking restaurant policy in order to maximize your own tips (which, after all, is the end goal, isn’t it?).

    In regards to cfrankel’s comment above, why does it bother you so much that restaurants might try to limit the amount of side dishes that they provide to you? Restaurants have these policies in place for a reason: they aren’t charities, and their main objective is to turn a profit. I’m sure that while breaking the policy for a single table wouldn’t have much of an effect on the restaurant’s take for the day, that if each of the tables did the same, then that restaurant would end up losing more money from providing restaurant-goers with free dressings, bread, soup, etc., than they would from the amount of profit they would make on meals. You call it petty, but that’s a terribly unfair and irrational judgment call to make.

  3. jasonkraman permalink
    April 16, 2011 12:14 AM

    I wanted to agree with @alexqhe. The customers having a slightly elevated happiness by receiving a couple extra ranch sides would not contribute to the greater general utility. Further, disregarding resturant policy, could have greater side effects, namely you being fired and being unable to provide for yourself or your family. The customers should be expected to know that in society, one follows policy and explaining that to the customer would appear easier than explaining to your boss that you broke policy. If we decided that it was acceptable to break this minor policy, it could lead to an acceptance for ignoring more important policies, definitely not producing the most utility. So, I think you should simply tell the customers, here are your 2 sides and deal with it, in the nicest way possible of course!

  4. kkokotil permalink
    April 16, 2011 7:35 PM

    I would love to tell my customers “Here are your 2 sides and just deal with it” but since I only get paid 2.65 an hour (which after taxes is barely anything if anything!) I literally make all my money off of my tips. Usually (I’m not saying always) people tend to not tip me as well if I don’t oblige to their every little want and need, because although I may think that an extra side of ranch isn’t that important, or that it will only slightly elevate the customer’s happiness, you would be surprised how BIG of a deal it can be! But I definately acknowledge that not every customer is like that, and I understand the important points of the past comments. I guess it all depends on what you look at as the greatest amount of people. The number of people who have ever asked for an extra ranch at applebees could very well exceed the number of employers I have!

  5. alexqhe permalink
    April 18, 2011 6:28 PM

    While you could say that “… the number of people who have ever asked for an extra ranch at Applebee’s could very well exceed the number of employers [you] have…” I hardly think that you should only consider the sheer number of customers as opposed to also taking into account the intensity of their happiness, as well as the intensity of your employer’s potential displeasure.

    Utility, the good to be maximized, is not solely dependent on the number – in this example, your customers – but is also dependent on the intensity, duration, and extent of pleasure or displeasure derived by the recipient of your actions. In other words, it’s an issue of qualitative versus quantitative (the latter of which you seem fixated on). I think that the dissatisfaction of your employers would be almost assuredly more intense than the dissatisfaction of your customers; at the very least, you risk much more by dissatisfying your employers than you do by informing your customers that you’re only allowed to bring out however many side dishes or dressings. After all, marketers and accountants smarter than us have already taken into account the negative reactions of customers and the subsequent backlash when they originally craft these policies of limitation. These analysts must figure that the amount of money that they save by instituting these policies outweigh whatever negative press that they garner, and as a result, they must be okay with it, which would only intensify the dissatisfaction of your employers if they discovered that you were breaking restaurant policy. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the opinions of your employers are “worth more,” so to speak, and your assertion that it’s only the number of customers that matters is, in my eyes, incorrect. The greatest aggregate happiness would be better achieved by just following policy and letting your customers deal with it — not all happiness is equal.

    With all of that said, I can only imagine what kind of conflict this type of situation puts you in. Hopefully more of your customers in the future are able to acknowledge the fact that it’s only restaurant policy that limits how many side dishes they take away, and that the blame isn’t to fall on you!

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