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Outline the Important Features of Utilitarianism Essay

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

Outline the Important Features of Utilitarianism

The word Utilitarianism comes from the Latin word ‘utilitis’ meaning useful. This traditional ethical theory stemmed from the late 18th and 19th centuries. The Principle of Utility is a teological theory popularised by the late British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Its basic meaning suggests it’s the total consequences of an action which determine how morally right or wrong an action is. If the amount of happiness produced in an action overrides the unhappiness produced by an action, the action is determined right. An example of this would be an abortion.

Jeremy Bentham was a man of extraordinary intellectual gifts; at the age three he began to study Latin and at the age of sixteen he took his degree at Oxford University. He introduced Act Utilitarianism; every act is evaluated on whether it does or does not produce happiness/pleasure. ‘The greatest happiness for the greatest number’. This insinuates that the amount of people made happy through an act is more important than the quality of their happiness, regardless of the consequences. However, there could be problems with this theory as Phillip Pettit indicated in the quote ‘so

long as they promised the best consequences… it would forbid absolutely nothing: not rape, not torture, not even murder. ’ Indicating that Act Utilitarianism could be an excuse to commit dreadful crimes such as murder it may create happiness for the person that committed the murder. It is also difficult to measure the quantity of pleasure or pain in an action. Yet, this theory is still a vital feature of Utilitarianism because it encourages people to think about the consequences of their actions before they perform the act.

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Consequently, Bentham introduced the Hedonic Calculus. The Hedonic Calculus proposes the idea that human pleasures and pains are measurable and that actions can be judged on whether they are considered right or wrong. There are seven factors that are considered when making this decision; it’s intensity (how pleasurable or painful the action is); the duration (how long the pleasure or pain will last); certainty (how sure of the pleasure of pain you are); propinquity/ remoteness (how near the pleasure or pain is); fecundity (the chance of being

followed by similar sensations); purity (the chance of it not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind); and extent (the number of individuals affected by it). Nevertheless, John Stuart Mill stated that (happiness is) ‘much too complex and indefinite’ (to be the measure of the moral worth of an action). Connoting, the amount of happiness/pleasure in an action is an individual process. It’s subjective not objective. However the Hedonic Calculus is no doubt an essential feature of Utilitarianism as it is important to consider what makes an action morally right or wrong.

Furthermore, Bentham’s disciple and friend, John Stuart Mill introduced Rule Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism measures the consequences of the act repeated over and over again through time, to be followed as a rule whenever certain circumstances arise. It is assesses how morally right or wrong an act is. Mill stressed the importance of ‘The Greatest happiness for the greatest principle’ and the significance of quality over quantity. Implying the extent of the happiness is more important than how many people the happiness affects.

He argued that it is the promotion of pleasures and the prevention of pain that determine our moral decisions. However what Mill failed to recognise was that it goes against human rights. So crimes as awful as murder may be considered acceptable in some cases. It could also be argued that Rule Utilitarianism ignores the consequences of the act. Rule Utilitarianism is still a very important theory as it aims to provide the most happiness/ pleasure for people as possible. Leading on, Mill introduced the idea of higher and lower pleasures.

Namely those of the mind (intellectual pleasures such as learning a language) are higher pleasures. Whilst body pleasures such as eating are lower pleasures. The higher pleasures are considered more prime and important than lower pleasures. Mill declared ‘it is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. ’ Implying humans are capable of experiencing much higher pleasures than animals. Mill ‘on Liberty’ stated ‘the only part of conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others’.

Suggesting that individuals should care and be concerned by how others think and feel. Conversely, the problem with this theory is that it is difficult to measure the amount of pleasure someone feels. In conclusion, although Utilitarianism is very useful when evaluating the consequences of an action, this theory does not consider the moral righteousness of an action. It is also very difficult to measure the amount of pleasure produced from action. The amount of pleasure can also differ depending on the individual.

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