Moral Philosophy - Utilitarianism

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  • Classical Utilitarianism as a consequential theory
    • The Greatest Happiness Principle
      • The basis of Utilitarianism is what is known as the Greatest Happiness Principle. Mill's version is: "Utility, or the GHP, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."
        • In other words, the more happiness and the less unhappiness that an action produces the more morally praiseworthy that it will be.
          • However, this seemingly simple formula for identifying right actions needs some unpacking. If we analyse the principle carefully we could say that it is in fact composed of three component principles. What the GHP is saying is that the only thing that matters is the consequences of an action, the only consequence that matters is happiness or unhappiness, and the happiness of any one individual doesn't count for more than the happiness of anybody else.
    • Bentham's hedonic calculus
      • Bentham devised a quasi-scientific algorithm by which different pleasures, and hence actions, could be compared with one another. It is known as the hedonic calculus and consists of seven criteria:
        • Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?   Duration: How long will it last?                Certainty: How likely is it?      Propinquity: How close in time and space is it?        Fecundity: Will it be followed by further sensations?  Purity: Will it be accompanied by opposite sensations?             Extent: How many will benefit?
    • Mill's Higher and Lower Pleasures
      • John Stuart Mill suggests that we must be clearer about how we define the word 'pleasure'. Pleasure cannot only include the sensual pleasures of the body but also the intellectual pleasures of the mind. Mill ranks the latter above the former to give an arguably more sophisticated account of pleasure than that of Bentham
        • The lower pleasures are those pleasures we share with the animals such as the pleasure of eating, drinking and sex.
          • The higher pleasures are those of the cultivated mind such as the joys of literature, music and the arts. Only humans can enjoy these pleasures and they are therefore distinctive of our special status as rational beings.
            • Mill encapsulates his approach with the quote "It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied". According to Mill, when faced with a choice between two pleasures, one should assess them not in the purely quantitative way recommended by Bentham but in a qualitative way.
    • Mill's Competent Judges
      • Mill argues that if we were to ask those people who had experienced both sorts of pleasure we would always find that such a person would prefer the higher ones.
        • He says, 'Few humans would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures.'
          • He calls such people competent judges, people who would never want to sacrifice their higher pleasures for a life of lower ones, even if they occasionally resort to base pleasures.
            • An obvious objection to this is that there are clearly people who have experienced both sorts of pleasure but who eventually will sink into a life of idleness. In response to this, Mill argues that the 'capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance.'
              • He later adds, 'Men... addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.'
    • The distinction between act and rule Utilitarianism
      • Act Utilitarianism is arguably the more primitive of the two since it takes literally the requirement that we examine the consequences of each possible course of action in any situation when making our moral choices.
        • As an example, imagine you were on the train and found a wallet which contained money - should you hand it in to the security? An Act Utilitarian would state that it would depend on the situation. If the wallet belonged to a world-famous billionaire actor who wouldn't care about the money and you were a single parent in a low-paid job who needed to pay for cancer treatment for your child, then more happiness might result if you kept it. However, if it was the other way around, then the action might be different.
      • Rule Utilitarianism doesn't believe assessing individual situations is appropriate or even possible. Instead, Rule Utilitarians believe that we should stick to general rules of conduct such as "Don't lie" and "Always respect your parents" because these rules in turn tend to produce good consequences overall.
      • To bring out the distinction between the two, we might characterise the Act Utilitarian as someone who always asks "What will happen if I do this?" while the Rule Utilitarian is perhaps seeking the bigger picture by always asking "What would happen if there was such a rule?" Rule Utilitarianism is also sometimes characterized as bridging the gap between the purely consequential concerns of Act Utilitarians and the concern for rules that we find in Deontological theories.

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