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Explain the key features of Utilitarian theory.
Utilitarianism is a theory created my Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and further developed by
John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. Bentham drew from the roots of Aristotle which gave him a base
on what to work on. Bentham wanted a theory which anybody could use and which wasn't dependant
on God, this lead him to create this theory based on empiricism (evidence) on the way humans act.
The key idea in Bentham's Utilitarianism is that it's a teleological theory which means that an act is
given moral quality once its consequences are analysed. In this case for an act to be moral it must
maximise the pleasure and minimise the pain to the majority of people affected. Bentham used this
theory because he believed that people were pain and pleasure organisms, that in life we tend to
pursue pleasure and free from pain. "Nature has placed us under the governance of two sovereign
masters, pain and pleasure." In his opinion what we do naturally is what we ought to do, therefore
this natural pursue of pleasure is moral. Pleasure was therefore the summum bonum of this ethical
approach meaning it's the one absolute.
Bentham went further to develop this theory by creating the Hedonic Calculus which was a way of
measuring how much pleasure is caused by an act. It had 7 factors, these are; Intensity (how strong is
the pleasure), Extent (how many people are affected), Nearness (how long until the pleasure will be
felt), Duration (how long the pleasure will last for), Certainty (how certain is it that pain will come),
Fecundity (producing other pleasures) and Purity (producing different pain/pleasures). Bentham
would give each factor a score, for example on the case of "Embryo experimentation on excess IVF".
The Extent would be huge because if the experiments work and they find out new information then
thousands of people will benefit in the future by being able to have babies when the originally
thought they could not. The Intensity will be huge as it gives them a child, and the child has a life which
is would have never had before pleasure cannot get stronger than this. The Duration would score
highly as the new children will have a lifetime of happiness and the parents get to live with a child of
their own for many years. However, the Certainty would score quite low because the scientists
cannot be certain that pleasures will be produced and similarly Nearness would score low because
one cannot be sure if it will come in 10 years or in 1 year.
People called Bentham's theory Act Utilitarianism which meant that exceptions were allowed to the
rule because each situation was different. Rules would start to emerge as each act is likely to
produce a similar outcome. For example, when measuring the morality of stealing, 9 times out of 10
stealing would be wrong but one must measure each act anyway as it depends on the consequences
of the individual circumstances.
Mill went on to develop Benthams theory and he made three alterations. The first alteration was the
addition of higher and lower pleasures. He believed that if people continued just to search for
pleasures they would tend to choose just lower pleasures because these are easily attainable and it
would make Utilitarianism a "Swine philosophy". The higher pleasures were ones of the mind and
soul, for example reading, studying and going to the theatre. Whereas the lower pleasures, were
pleasures of the body, for example eating, sport and sex. Mill said that if you asked somebody who
has experienced both higher and lower pleasures he would say that the higher pleasures are more
valuable. He also argued that we should pursue these higher pleasures at the cost of feeling pain. Mill
aimed to increase the standard of living so that people were able to feel the higher pleasures such as
studying and/or going to the theatre.
Secondly Mill introduced the "Theory of Justice", which benefited the individual. Mill believed that we
should not cause pain to the individual just to cause pleasure to the majority. For example, bullying a
little boy because it gives pleasure to lots of boys is immoral as it creates a tyranny of majority. Mill
said that the individual should have freedom to do as he wishes as long as it does not cause pain to
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For example, torturing a suicide bomber could be moral because this person may kill
thousands of people in the future.
Mills final alteration was the introduction of Rule Utilitarianism. Mill said that Bentham's Utilitarianism
wasn't practical as one cannot be expected to measure how much pleasure is produced by using the
Hedonic Calculus every time! It's just too difficult. Mill's rule utilitarianism meant that after seeing
what an act normally produces, then a rule can be applied.…read more