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The Greatest Happiness Principle
The greatest happiness for the greatest number
The Greatest Happiness Principle, stated above, is at the heart of a number of ethical theories that
fall under the umbrella of `Utilitarianism'. Utilitarianism is an incredibly useful, and increasingly
popular, ethical position. Its many benefits are matched with some serious flaws. However, modern
Utilitarianists have repeatedly adapted the theory rather than discard it. Peter Singer is one example
of a Utilitarian whose ideas have gained great popularity in recent years.
Bentham equated happiness with pleasure and the absence of pain. This was an empirical
observation - people desire pleasure and seek to avoid pain. His scientific mind led him to believe
that the study of ethics could be undertaken in a practical way, carefully measuring the possible
consequences or outcomes of an action before deciding which choice to take.
Bentham's theories led to extensive social reform affecting Parliament, criminal law, the jury system,
prisons, savings banks, cheap postage etc., etc. What was revolutionary about Bentham's theory was
that it resulted in all people being considered when making laws. His felicific calculus (also called the
`hedonic' or `utility' calculus) was helpful in determining how to measure different amounts of
The Hedonic Calculus
Remoteness ­ how near it is
Purity ­ how free from pain it is
Richness ­ to what extent it will lead to other pleasures
Intensity ­ how powerful it is
Certainty ­ how likely it is to result
Extent ­ how many people it affects
Duration ­ how long it lasts

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John Stuart Mill
Mill believed that quality was more important than quantity when it came to pleasure. For example,
the pleasures of the mind are far superior to the gratification of the body's desires. This deals with
the problem of sadistic torturers, as their pleasure is of a significantly lower kind.
`It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied
than a fool satisfied.…read more

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Does this make him an Act Utilitarian? Peter Vardy says this is how most people view Mill. Others
describe him as a 'soft' Rule Utilitarian; 'Hard' Rule Utilitarian's would disagree with breaking a rule
even if doing so led to the greater good. Many criticise 'soft' Rule Utilitarian's, saying that this is
effectively the same as Act Utilitarianism.…read more

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It is unclear what counts as pleasure or how to equate pleasure and pain. There
are three key points here:
1. Unpredictable You can't know the future, and things rarely turn out as we think they will. It cannot be
right to judge an action right or wrong based on outcomes that are down to chance.
2. Incalculable Even if you knew exactly what would happen, it is impossible to add up all of the pain
and pleasure resulting from a course of action.…read more

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Improvements ­ The theory has been adapted and Unpredictable ­ You can't actually know what is going
improved over time. Modern Utilitarian's have a much to happen in the future, so it is wrong to base our ethica
better theory than Bentham's. choices on what may or may not come about in the
Quality ­ Mill answered a valid criticism of Bentham's Immeasurable ­ You can't assign a value to an amount
theory, that the pleasure of sadistic torturers is not of pleasure.…read more

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Universal ­ Every culture has its own rules, which shows Naturalistic Fallacy ­ Just because people desire
that deontological theories are wrong about universal pleasure, this doesn't make pleasure desirable. Put
rules. However, the principle of utility, reducing harming another way, just because the majority of people would
and increasing happiness, is universal, and applies in prefer something, doesn't meant that they ought to
every culture. prefer it or that it's right to do it.
It works ­ If Utilitarianism is properly applied, it works.…read more

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It is uncertain what pleasures
The freedom from the pain of an
Certainty continuing with the pregnancy might
unwanted child is certain
Having the baby will affect a vast
The mother and her immediate number of people, but many cancel
family are most directly affected each other out as each life brings
pleasure and pain
The freedom might last a long time
(even for the rest of the girl's life,
The child will bring pleasure (and
Duration although if she were to get…read more


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