Outline key features of utilitarianism Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 11 December 2016

Outline key features of utilitarianism

The theory of utilitarianism determines the rightness or wrongness of an action by its consequence. The theory uses a teleological approach where it primarily focuses on the amount of pain or pleasure created as the result of a given action. As such, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. Utilitarianism is a relativist system of which most versions do not set out fixed rules to follow and are quite flexible. The main founders of the theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who outlined the principle in utility.

Bentham first developed Utilitarianism in the late 18th century, in the age of industrial revolution which was a time of great social change; Bentham argued that the new enlightened and scientific era required a new approach to ethics which would not be based upon the old established idea of the Church and its external moral authority. He hoped to create a rational secular moral approach which would also appeal to unreligious people and could be applied to all ethical situations.

Bentham split his theory on Utilitarianism into three main sections; the first being that the main human aim throughout life was to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The second part of his theory was the principle of utility, which uses pleasure and pain as the basis for making moral decisions and looks at the amount of pleasure caused by the action in order to make a decision. Bentham then included a way of calculating the amount of pleasure devised from a particular action with what is called the Hedonic Calculus.

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This included seven criteria that had to be answered in order to sum up whether the decision would be the right thing to do. Utilitarianism is a teleological argument. It is concerned with the consequences of actions, and does not take the actions themselves into consideration when deciding on the morality of the decisions. Utilitarianism relies on Bentham’s utility principle; this principle states that the moral correctness of an action is determined by the amount of pleasure caused by the action for the maximum number of people.

In Bentham’s theory, the ‘party whose interest is in question’ is the greatest number of people. Bentham argued that one should maximise happiness for the majority, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Good is seen by Bentham as the maximisation of pleasure and minimisation of pain (or happiness equals pleasure minus pain). However some dilemmas may create different types of pleasure for different groups of people. For example, this theory could be used to justify such things as slavery, and the pain of one person could be overruled by the pleasure of many other people.

To stop these issues, Bentham created the Hedonic calculus and introduces the following criteria: intensity, duration, certainty, and its propinquity (or nearness). He also includes its “fecundity” (pleasure which promotes further pleasure) and its “purity” (its pleasure won’t be followed by pain). In considering actions that affect numbers of people, we must also account for its extent. The intensity, for example, is an important factor.

If, by your actions, you caused very slight pain to someone else, but created a very intense pleasure for yourself, it would be more acceptable to go ahead with your actions. If, however, your actions generated excruciating pain to someone else, while only providing yourself with a little pleasure, it would not be morally correct to follow through with the action. According to Bentham, using a balance of factors such as these allows someone to make a morally correct decision; however many people deem Bentham’s theory to be weak as he claimed that all pleasures were equal.

Therefore does this justify the act of sadism? Utilitarianism is split into two main classes, act and rule; both of which follow similar principles. Bentham was an act utilitarian because he regarded the consequences of each act as a separate calculation for example, stealing may be wrong or could potentially be the right thing to do, depending on its consequence whether the person was stealing to be selfish or to perhaps feed their starving child. Rule utilitarianism, however, is very rigid, and focuses on general rules.

In any case, the general rule takes place over the individual’s situation. In contrast to rule, act utilitarianism has much more flexibility, and does not leave any possibility for unjust actions to come about as a result. Rule Utilitarianism is the theory most closely linked to John Stuart Mill, a philosopher whom was a family friend of Bentham. Mill believed that we should consider the consequences which usually follow from types of actions and make general social principles accordingly.

For example, stealing usually causes pain and therefore a rule should state that stealing is wrong. Mill discovered a flaw in Bentham’s theory that the greatest good for the greatest number should not just be a quantitive (as in Bentham’s calculus) as the quality of the pleasure should also matter. For example, the sadism of prison guards, where multiple people take pleasure from someone else’s pain, are morally correct under Bentham’s theory, as the total pleasure outweighs the total pain, whereas Mill believed that the individual’s interest should also be served.

Mill wanted to avoid the implication that Utilitarianism was a theory of bare gratification; it doesn’t mean giving people what they want all the time. The harm principle holds that the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals. John Stuart Mill articulated this principle in On Liberty, where he argued that, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. Mill thus distinguished between higher and lower pleasures as a key to ethics.

Mill argues that happiness, rather than pleasure, should be the basis of Utilitarianism. Happiness includes what Mill calls the ‘higher pleasures’, such as being able to appreciate art or good literature. Mill regarded pleasures of the mind as higher than those of the body. He follows on from Bentham’s theory but prioritises the pleasure of a more intellectual nature rather than lower pleasures such as eating food or having sex. More recently, different perspectives have been taken on Utilitarianism, one of these being preference Utilitarianism.

Peter Singer was a modern advocate of this approach to Utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism still seeks to maximise happiness for the majority. However, departing from Bentham’s hedonism, preference utilitarians define a positive outcome in terms of ‘preference satisfaction’. This emphasizes personal liberty and self-efficacy. In other words it doesn’t seek to maximise the simple sensation of pleasure but instead values the satisfaction of choices and the resulting state of mind this produces.

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