This essay – or post if you wish – is intended as a concise exploration of utilitarianism, one of many ethical movements within the world of moral philosophy. An understanding of this topic could prove useful to IB philosophy students taking ethics as one of their chosen options. I am focusing here on the nature of utilitarianism and am not considering its weaknesses. These will be looked at in a separate post.
Utilitarianism is a moral theory generally considered to have been founded by Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century English philosopher and social reformer. It is centred around the concept of happiness, and seeks to promote it. The idea here is that all people seek happiness, and that it is the ultimate goal of all human beings to be happy. Therefore, according to classical utilitarianism, when a person wishes to act in an ethically sound manner he or she should strive to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest possible amount of people. This is known as the greatest happiness principle. Another, similar idea is that a person should always strive, if incapable of producing happiness, to reduce unhappiness. As the theory is wholly focused on the outcome of a person’s actions, it is classed as a “consequentialist” theory, i.e. a theory that concerns itself with consequences and not actions in themselves.
Utility: the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial. – The New Oxford American Dictionary
Utilitarianism can be seen as a highly mathematical theorem, looking at the total units of happiness that a particular action gives rise to. For instance, you might have a choice between taking your sick neighbour’s dog for a walk or going out for drinks with a few of your colleagues. Imagine that the neighbour is desperate to find someone to exercise his canine companion, while your friends are fully capable of enjoying themselves without you. Taking the dog for a walk might add 10 units of happiness to the world’s total stock, whereas going out for drinks would only add a total of 6. Certainly, the latter would make a greater quantity of people happy (the former only benefiting one person), but it is the quantity ofthe happiness produced that is of interest to utilitarians. It is also important to note the impartiality of utilitarianism in this example; your personal relationships are of no importance – it does not matter how close you are to your colleagues, the right thing to do would still be to take the dog for a walk.
But let us look more closely at Bentham’s utilitarianism. To understand his approach more fully, it is vital that one come to an appreciation of exactly what he meant by “happiness”. His ideas here are, really, quite simple. Bentham thought that we should look at happiness as being based on pleasure. Naturally, it follows from this that he also felt that we should treat unhappiness as something consisting of pain. This view on happiness has led his particular brand of utilitarianism to be seen as a hedonistic theory. Furthermore, Bentham did not distinguish between different forms of pleasure. To him, anything that gave rise to happiness – be it drugs or reading – was fundamentally good.
Other philosophers have striven to develop Bentham’s theories further. One of the more notable of these is John Stuart Mill, who sought to distinguish between what he termed “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Mill disagreed with Bentham’s all-inclusive view on pleasure, feeling that there was a fundamental difference between the varying forms of pleasure available to people, and that some had a finer quality than others. It was Mill who put forth the notion that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.
Mill’s idea was fairly straightforward, namely that while there are many simple, sensual pleasures in life, such as eating or drinking, there are also certain pleasures which are of a more cerebral nature, such as listening to classical music or reading poetry. According to Mill, these latter pleasures are of a greater quality, and should therefore be considered more important. He posited that someone who has experienced both forms of pleasure would naturally feel inclined to choose the higher pleasures. For instance, a man who is familiar with both tasty food and good poetry would view the latter as something more valuable than the former.
This is a fairly straightforward exploration of the most common forms of utilitarianism. The most important thing to remember about these theories is that they are consequantialist and, above all else, that they are concerned with the greater good. Utilitarians don’t care about your personal agenda or whether your actions happen to hurt some people. As long as the eventual results of your actions lead to more pleasure than pain, you’re in the clear.
What is Utilitarianism?
The dictionary definition of Utilitarianism is: ‘The doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principal of conduct.’ When making a moral decision, we should look at the outcome of an action. Whatever brings the greatest happiness to the most people is the morally ‘right’ decision. It is a consequentialist principal where the majority rules. It is also relative as each situation is looked at differently and will have a different outcome. Utilitarianism is known as the theory of utility. The meaning of utility is usefulness. Each action is judged by its usefulness in bringing about desired consequences. The word utility was first used to describe a group of social reformers. They attempted to make laws and practices of use-useful to people.
It was Scottish Philosopher David Hume (1711-76) who introduced utility into ethics. However, he was not viewed as a Utilitarian. The well known phrase associated with Utilitarianism was produced by Francis Hutcheson. He said:
“The nation is best which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, and that worst which in like manner occasions misery.”
This is the basis of Utilitarianism yet, like Hume, Hutcheson was also not regarded as a Utilitarian.
One of the main exponents of Utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham. He was an English philosopher who was particularly concerned with social conditions of his time. Oxford University saw him graduate at just 16 and become a barrister. He was responsible for the reforms of prisons, and education, influenced by the French and American Revolutions. Bentham, a strong atheist who was very much opposed to the monarchy wrote a book in 1789 named ‘The principles of Morals and Legislation’. He believed that all people should be treated equally and what is right for society relies on what makes the individual happy. Happiness is determined in terms of pleasure.
Bentham was a hedonist – pleasure seeker. His aim was to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure is the sole good or intrinsically good, and pain is the soul evil or intrinsically evil.
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
The intent of this was to maximise pleasure. An action is morally right if it generates the greatest pleasure for the majority and the least pain. This idea of pleasure and pain is known as the Hedonic Principal. Bentham said that if you wanted to find out which of your actions would bring about the greatest happiness, then you could measure pleasure. The quantity of pleasure can be measured according to Bentham using the Hedonic Calculus. The following criteria are used for measuring pleasure: duration, intensity, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. It does not matter if an action goes against the law, at least the result will be maximum pleasure.
One of the earliest Utilitarians to live by this principle was Epicurus – he stated that “Friendship goes dancing round the world proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life.”
He believed that a good life was one with pleasure and the absence of pain.
The other exponent of Utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill. He had a strict upbringing having very little contact with the outside world. He was around intelligent people a lot of the time as his father’s friends consisted of philosophers, politicians, and economists-one being Bentham. He joined the Utilitarian Society, which met at Jeremy Bentham’s house – this is where Mill became interested in the theory. Two of his important books were ‘On Liberty’ in 1859 and ‘Utilitarianism’ in 1861. Mill wanted to modify Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism to make it more acceptable.
There were a number of things Mill did to change Utilitarianism. Bentham suggested that all pleasures were of equal value, no pleasures were higher or lower than others. This evoked criticism so the main point he made was that of changing qualitative pleasure to quantitative pleasure. He divided pleasure into two, higher and lower. The higher pleasures were associated with the mind, and the lower pleasures with the body. Once the basic lower pleasures of the body (food, water etc.) have been reached, we can then go in search of higher, intellectually challenging pleasures.
“Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
Mill also linked Utilitarianism with Christian morality. He connected the theory with the teachings of Jesus. He said that the ‘ideal perfection of utilitarian morality’ was abiding by the ‘Golden Rule’-‘Do onto others as you have them do to you.’ This made many more people accept Utilitarianism as it linked with their religion. Rules were introduced into Utilitarianism by Mill. The rules introduced were ones that generally brought about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. For example, Mill argued that society needs the principal of truthfulness as it brings the most happiness on the long run.
There are three types of Utilitarianism, Act, Rule, and Preference. Act Utilitarianism is where you look at the consequences of each individual action and asses which brings the most good. Act Utilitarians like Bentham do not see the need for rules when deciding morality, each situation is different. Rule Utilitarianism does not look at individual acts but the usefulness of a rule in morality. Mill was an Act Utilitarian and applied rules that usually bring the most good to situations. Strong Rule Utilitarians never break rules, and Weak Rule Utilitarianism keep rules in mind yet are prepared to break them if necessary. Preference Utilitarianism is where the preferences of those involved are taken into account when making the decision. The morally right thing to do in any situation is one that satisfies most people’s preferences.
Utilitarianism is used in many societies, especially in politics. We encounter it every time we make a democratic vote. Our government rule by majority without the consent of the minority. Right and wrong are relative to the people involved and the things that give them pleasure. Utilitarianism is there to ensure that this pleasure is present and is maximised to its full potential.
What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism as a moral theory?
As with all moral theories, there are strengths and weaknesses. Although they are both Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill disagreed with each other on some matters. Many different people have their own interpretations of Utilitarianism and some may not agree with the strengths and weaknesses but here are some of the major arguments connected with the theory.
The major criticism of Utilitarianism is that it is extremely hard to predict the results of an action. The outcomes of all situations are hard to predict, so how can we possibly apply the rule of the greatest happiness for the greatest number if we do not know who will benefit most? It is also difficult to decide whether an outcome is morally good or bad. People have contrasting opinions on what they think is right or wrong. It really depends on the person who is making the decision, a lot of pressure is then put on that person’s shoulders. How can we define happiness? The decision-maker may have a different perception on happiness than others-causing conflict. “One man’s happiness is another man’s pain.” Without an absolute definition of happiness, it is hard to arrive at a ‘right’ decision.
Different decisions may result in different kinds of pleasure. Is long term or short term pleasure more valuable? For example, when deciding whether to take an ecstasy tablet at a club. Taking the pill may give you a lot of short-term pleasure, but in the long term, it may cause more harm than good. Not taking the tablet would involve fewer risks and would avoid potential pain. Even here, you cannot predict the results of your decision, as there is no way of telling the effect the ecstasy has on you until you have tried it. Bentham would look for the long-term pleasures, as this is what Hedonists seek. Also, we do not know how long the result will last for.
Hume argued for this statement:
“The effects of an action form part of a chain that stretches into the indefinite future. Here is always the possibility that a very positive result of an action may subsequently lead to very negative consequences.”
How do we decide which pleasure the majority would prefer? This refers to preference Utilitarianism where the action is taken that is most favourable to the majority.
The rules of Utilitarianism allow people to do things, which are usually considered immoral. This is the idea of “The end justifies the means”. If an action brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then whatever needs to be done to obtain this is just. This means that even serious rules are permitted, Often requiring the breaking of the law. Utilitarianism requires people to put their personal feelings and ties aside and act on the absolute rule of the theory. Prior commitments a person may have should not influence their decision, although when decisions need to be made quickly, the reflex action would be to act on human instinct (e.g. save their family).
Bentham’s theory is suggesting that good and happiness are the same thing. G.E. Moore argued that moral terms such as good cannot be defined. It is wrong to define good as happiness as this is creating the naturalistic fallacy. He believed that by defining good, important aspects or meanings are missed out, so by not defining them, they stay as they are. Utilitarianism sees that everybody’s duty is to do what is best for the majority. It is allowing for the well being of the majority to rule over the minority. Just because the majority benefit, it does not mean that the action is the morally correct thing to do.
Despite all the arguments against Utilitarianism, there are some valid points for the theory. It is widely accepted, many countries run by means of democracy. Our political leaders are elected through the ballot box, the majority overriding the minority. This however does not automatically mean that they are the most suited people for the job. Utilitarianism allows people to contemplate the situation before making the decision. This time prevents people from making hasty, unethical judgements, as it encourages thought before action.
The aim of the theory is to produce happiness and pleasure. These are two desirable things as Utilitarianism says that pleasure is the sole good and pain is the soul evil.
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters-pleasure and pain”
A theory that promotes pleasure must be a good thing as most people see pleasure as desirable over pain. The intention of Utilitarianism was not to create immorality but to please to maximum number of people possible. Surely it is better for a hundred people to be happy than five. There are other ethical theories that have many rules you have to learn and abide by. Utilitarianism has one simple absolute which can be applied to all situations with a positive outcome. In times of difficulty, it eases people out of difficult situations. They cannot be blamed for making the wrong decision if they claim it was for the happiness of the majority
Prejudices the decision maker may hold are eradicated in Utilitarianism, as they have to stick to the main rule. There is some leeway for emotions in moral decision making according to Rule Utilitarianism. This strand of the theory allows respect for the rules that are created to better our society. Even these rules do not have to be kept all the time if you are a weak rule Utilitarian. Some people would see this kind of Utilitarianism more compassionate than Act Utilitarianism. One of the main strengths is that it prevents the few people that think they better the rest from dictating society. Utilitarianism acts as a good weapon for reform.
Utilitarianism is a theory that Christians can relate to. Mill brought it closer to the Christian church by introducing Rule Utilitarianism. This would be closer to the principals Jesus lived by. For example, it was against the Jewish law to work on the Sabbath but when people were in need, Jesus bent this rule and healed them. The largest connection Christianity has with Utilitarianism is the death of Jesus. He was crucified and died for the sins of mankind-sacrificing himself for the majority. However, Utilitarianism does accept evil where Christianity most certainly does not.
Philosophers like Bentham and Mill worked hard to produce a theory that could aid us make complex decisions with a desirable outcome. The different types of Utilitarianism make it easier to live by, yet it is hard not to let our emotions override our actions. Despite the many flaws in the theory, it is simple and easy to apply. Our legal and political system work by the theory and are not corrupt, so why shouldn’t our morality?
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