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Consequentialism is the position that the moral character of an action is defined solely by its
consequences. The most popular and influential kind of consequentialism is utilitarianism. Briefly
stated, utilitarians hold that there exists some state of affairs, `the good' or `utility', that is both
valuable in itself and quantifiable, and that actions may be considered right if of all available
alternatives they maximize this utility. To the question of how exactly this goodtobemaximized is
to be defined utilitarians provide differing answers (which we'll get to later on).
Utilitarianism has some ancient roots (see Scarre, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2) however, as a
selfconscious philosophical view it really came into its own in the eighteenth century in the
writings of men like William Godwin and Jeremy Bentham (17481832).
Bentham held that, when faced with a choice of actions, one should estimate the pleasure and pain
caused all those affected, and choose the action which maximizes the balance of pleasure over
pain. For Bentham, it's the quantity of the pleasure that counts, not its `quality'. Pleasure is
pleasure, whether it's the pleasure one gains from listening to Beethoven or to Peter Andre. But is
Bentham right in holding that what ultimately matters in questions of morality is the production of
pleasure? Probably not. Consider a pleasureproducing `experience machine' would it be
irrational not to plug in?
A more sophisticated discussion of utilitarianism is found in the works of John Stuart Mill
(18061873). One way in which Mill's utilitarianism differs from that of Bentham is in its inclusion
of a distinction between higher and lower forms of pleasure. For Bentham, recall, `quantity of
pleasure being equal, push pin is as good as poetry'. For Mill, on the other hand, `It is better to
be... Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.'
But why so? Mill contends that we know this because of the testimony of those people
(`competent judges') who have experienced both lower and higher pleasures. Sure, if someone
has never heard wonderful music and never read great literature, then she will think that it is best
to spend her life clubbing and having casual sex. However, says Mill, those people who have
experienced both the higher and lower pleasures of life agree that the higher pleasures are
superior to the lower. Is this a convincing response?
Some different kinds of utilitarianism
Act versus ruleutilitarianism
For actutilitarianism, actions are judged right or wrong on the basis of how they affect utility. So,
as we have seen, an action is right if it tends to lead to the best possible consequences for
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By contrast, for a ruleutilitarian, morality is a matter of abiding by those rules
that, if followed universally, would produce the greatest good (i.e., maximise utility).
Recall the classical utilitarian emphasis on the importance of securing the greatest happiness for
the greatest number. But doing that has some rather odd implications.…read more
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Consider the following example (from Scarre, p.155): Apparently, one day after a morning's
pillaging and looting, Genghis Khan stopped to explain his views on happiness. `The greatest joy',
he declared, `is to conquer one's enemies, to pursue them, to seize their property, to see their
families in tears, to ride their horses, and to possess their daughters and their wives.…read more