Utilitarianism is a contrast to classic approaches to ethics. One of the main features or indeed the basis of Utilitarianism is the ‘Greatest happiness for the greatest number’ theory which posses a secular oUtlook to ethics. Utilitarianism is the doctrine according to which actions are made right or wrong so far as they promote happiness, wrong in so far as they promote the reverse. The form of this definition conceals the fact that Utilitarianism is often called the consequentalist doctrine.
One main feature of Utilitarianism is that according to Utilitarianism actions are not themselves intrinsically right or wrong; they are right or wrong in so far as they have good or bad oUtcomes.The version of Utilitarianism which holds the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number theory was popularised by Jeremy Benthem and his disciple John Mill and from them we have the ‘ Greatest happiness principle’. This derived from a 19th Century philosopher, Jeremy Benthem (1748-1831) who was the founder of Utilitarianism; Utilitarianism began life as an ethical principle under Jeremy Bentham who theorised that an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In its original form the argument had many flaws, so John Stuart Mill decided to defend the principle of Utility against its critics by refining its ideas making them more practical in society.
Classic approaches to ethics stress good intentions as essential to morality. For example, ‘tell the trUth because it is morally good to tell the truth, even if it hurts’. Classic approaches to ethics often stress the intrinsic value of morality. Unlike classic approaches Utilitarianism does not distribute happiness or goodness in an equalariean manner.
Utilitarianism is not about having ideals; it is an aprori approach to morality, a basis that experience counts for everything. One might call it a moral theory of usefulness in terms of the greater good, not in terms of ones selfish desires.Jeremy Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism was based on observation, that the definite “good” in terms of “pleasure” and established that two things are intrinsically good, namely pleasure itself and freedom from pain. His logical progression deduced that we ought to increase what is good by increasing what brings us pleasure or freedom from pain. Thus the Principle of Utility was created- “act in such a way as to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number working to increase the total sum of pleasure”. Mill felt that he could strengthen the argument for Utilitarianism by clarifying its points.
In his famous argument he simplifies the term “happiness” and “pleasure” used by Bentham, as one major criticism is that the word “pleasure” does not have the same meaning as the word “good”.Utilitarianism as an ethical theory possesses a main feature whereby it is concerned with the wants and needs of society. One of the appeals of Utilitarianism lies in its practical value, that it can be applied quickly to any moral dilemma. This is done in a mathematical form, by computing pleasure in the Hedonic Calculus. This is Bentham’s way of deciding on the correct or most appropriate course of action by analysing the pleasure that arises from it and comparing it with alternatives.
He identified seven factors involved in this process, Intensity, Duration, Certainty, Propinquity, Purity, Fecundity and Extent, which help us weigh and assess the quantity of happiness.However there arise problem, hence, provoking criticisms which I will look at in the second question. One of the problems with the Hedonic Calculus was that it judged the quantity of happiness i.e.
the number of people but not the quality of the happiness therefore problems arise in assessing it’s value. Different pleasures bring different amounts of happiness to different people but in Benthamï¿½s theory all pleasures are equal. This received much criticism from Victorian society as like Epicurius he commanded all to enjoy “swinish” pleasures, which were frowned upon by the educated classes at this time.
Mill attempted to tackle this pitfall by acknowledging that there were higher and lower pleasures. His proof was based on human experience and proposed that no one who has experienced a higher pleasure would sacrifice that knowledge for an experience, however intense, of a lower pleasure. This is illustrated perfectly in the play “Educating Rita” by Willie …
..Where a working class woman experiences the higher pleasures of literature and feels as if she no longer belongs in a pub experiencing lower pleasures. It is therefore possible to verify which pleasures actually do rate higher than others by the experience of those who have known both. Mill’s version is deals more adequately with what we regard as valuable about human life i.e. there are better and worse ways of being human. As higher pleasures also include that of moral feeling and well being, for example the joy of a quiet conscience felt by helping others they receive special weighting.
They have a higher value than they enjoyed previously under Bentham where they were merely a possibility amongst others so Mill has tackled the criticism that morality is not taken seriously enough. Mill has acknowledged the complexity of the concepts of “happiness” and “pleasure”. This system appealed to the reforming element of society who pushed for education reforms so that more could experience higher pleasures and have a better quality of life.
Mill’s theory encounters some problems of it’s own as this separation of the pleasures into two categories makes the hedonic calculus impossible to execute, as instead of one scale there are now two.How can higher and lower be compared? Is the pleasure felt by ten people at the theatre watching Verdi’s “Tosca” worth more than a hundred at the cinema watching the latest Brad Pitt film? Now that the quality is different they cannot be measured against each other therefore nullifying the calculus. In reality his attempt to assess the quality of an action end in stating that higher pleasures are morally superior and therefore preferable. But Mill’s empirical generalisation that no one who has experienced a higher pleasure would sacrifice it for a lower one is not always correct, as it does not account for aesthetics of the individual.Mill’s version of Utilitarianism is more acceptable in practise as it recognises issues that Bentham left out of his theorem. His method of qualitative assessment of happiness is a progression from Benthamï¿½s solely quantitative one which recognises educated pursuits above swinish pleasures. Moral issues are given special treatment under his scheme of higher pleasures, which acknowledges our higher regard for them as human beings. He also attempted to tackle the unstable use of Epicurian words but could not overcome issues like the loss of justice or the difficulty of knowing all possible out.
His version though more refined is still flawed leaving a gap for theologians of the future to fill.One of the main features of Utilitarianism is the fact that it gives simple straightforward answers to simple questions, hence the ‘average man on the street’ can relate to it. For someone who wants this type of philosophy, Utilitarianism is just that; simple and straightforward. As an example, if one asks ‘ what should be my guiding principle in life?’ a Utilitarianism would give a one sentence answer, ‘ always act in accordance with the Greatest Happiness Principle’. And, lets face it, for the average man on the street that is a plausible thing to hear!One thing about Utilitarianism is that it does appear to be right. Right, that is, in so far as they involve saying that suffering is wrong, that we ought not to make people suffer- aim at preventing suffering, and that the promotion of happiness is right. However, this theory rejects the qminority. If one goes by the Greatest Happiness for the greatest number theory, then the minority’s values are not valid.
The consequences of any action are what matters; hence the saying ‘end justifies the means’ clearly derives from Utilitarianism. There are no rules that govern moral conduct. A Utilitarianism morality is based on experience and every situation based on its own merits. The main, or dare I say the only thing that matters is achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number.Other features of which at large strengthen Utilitarianism as an ethical theory is it can be easily applied to decision making, its flexible, practical and is concerned with beneficial results. Utilitarianism compliments a secular outlook on society- and after all, we do live in a secular society, a western style capitalist economy, which have Utilitarianism foundations.The premise of Utilitarianism is a basic and indeed obvious one, avoid pain, like pleasure! It certainly doesn’t waste time moralising about rules!2. Obviously, utilitarianism does invoke some criticisms.
One factor that is simple, yet I feel valid (after all the premise of utilitarianism is simple) is the fact that it can’t cope with everyday situations like murder. A situation which accures in every society. If it can’t work for a society then as a philosophy it has failed, after all this theory is about how we should behave in society. To a certain extent I think that we are utilitarian, or at least, that the greatest happiness principle is one of our basic moral principles.
But are we total utilitarian’s? I think not, however, here are three questions that I came across that helped me evaluate the criticisms of utilitarian;* Is everything we think wrong, wrong because it violates the greatest happiness principle?* Is everything we think right, right because it is in accordance with the principle?* If someone were a utilitarian through and through would they fulfil our ideal of a truly moral person?By dissecting the first point I am going to look at examples of things which are either utterly wrong, but don’t come up wrong in utilitarian grounds, or are at least arguably wrong, but justifiable and right on utilitarian grounds. One of these, as I earlier referred to, being murder.Utilitarianism can justify with a judge allowing a criminal to go unpunished and letting an innocent man to be punished. Utilitarianism has two difficulties with murder and such like a) in saying what is ever wrong with it and b) supposing it has solved that problem, in saying why its wrong in certain cases.
This objection to utilitarianism does sound, or does tend to sound absurd…murder not being wrong according to utilitarianism? When it is the doctrine of humanitarianism? This seems ridiculas! But, this is where one must remember the consequentalist doctrine- that an act is to be judged on its outcomes.The strongest point I have established from utilitarianism claims that consequences are the most fundamental idea of utilitarianism. The fundamental outlook is that we should look at what will happen from our actions and this is when most criticisms come in.
There are three main criticisms, justice, rights and looking back at the past. And, is happiness all that matters?Justice- Utilitarianism is an amoral approach as an ethical theory; therefore it can justify actions that ordinarily we would find adherent- torturing terrorists. Utilitarianism is incompatible with the idea of justice. As an example utilitarianism says that the happiness of the whole human race would be increased (no poverty, disease, theft) but one man would have to suffer eternal torture.
According to utilitarianism this would be morally right. However, I’m sure some would agree that this is terribly wrong! The Golden Rule states ‘do to others as you want done to you’.Rights- a philosophy like Situation Ethics (also Christian Ethics) would say that everyone has rights even the minority. Hence the linking phrase- “treat your neighbour how you would like to be treated.” A minority of people should not lose their rights to the majority.
Looking at the past- utilitarianism looks at the future to see if an action will produce happiness and how much. What utilitarianism misses is the fact that the actions based on this philosophy are leaving happiness in the past. Suppose you promise to spend time with a younger sibling who was excited about it but you got more happiness watching a video with your boyfriend, even though it means a lot to your younger sibling. Is utilitarianism saying that it is ok to break promises? What utilitarianism misses is the fact that a) you made a promise and from this causes someone hurt; your sibling.It is quite possible with utilitarianism that we encounter unforeseen situations; which have more harmful results than beneficial. The advantage of having ideals is that if an action causes something bad then at least you can fall back on ideals. With utilitarianism there are no such thing as ideals, therefore one cannot fall back on this premise. If one has moral ideals then it means that from the start there is good intention, as utilitarianism is a conceqentalist doctrine then it is reliant on outcomes, and outcomes are never certain.
Another criticism, which I noticed, is the fact that a problem could arise when two courses of action produce an equal manner of happiness or goodness, and here comes in the problem of quantifying happiness. Benthams hedonic calculus is meaningless for two reasons;* One cannot reduce happiness or pleasure done to a mathematical formula* We all experience pleasure in different ways, the hedonic calculus presumes we experience pleasure in the same way.We could, theoretically justify any action on utilitarianism grounds by claiming that pleasure is personal and therefore cannot be expressed as a mathematical formula.On a bigger scale a good point is that utilitarianism doesn’t distribute goodness or happiness in an equal manner. In certain situations this maybe regarded as unfair, for example, global wealth. Basically assuming that the wealth of the globe is currently distributed in a utilitarianism manner, this means that some of the world population is starving, and this is evident in the world.
It would be fairer to redistribute wealth so the poor do not starve, however this may not be justifiable in utilitarianism grounds. It may be that if the wealthy have to give up some of their resources they incur a disproportionate amount of pleasure derived from the poor.