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The greatest happiness principle: Choose what causes the
greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): Bentham equated happiness with
the gaining of pleasure and the absence of pain. This he observed from
empirical evidence based on the pattern of people actively desiring
pleasure and avoiding pain. As a scientific mind, he believed that ethics
could be made practical by carefully measuring consequences of
actions before deciding upon a course of action. His theories led to
extensive reform with effects in parliament, criminal law, jury systems,
banks, postage and prisons. His hedonic (hedon is Greek for pleasure)
calculus became helpful in determining how to measure pleasure.
The Hedonic Calculus: Remoteness: How near it is
Purity: How free from pain it is, Richness: To what extent will it lead to
other pleasures, Intensity: How powerful it is, Certainty: How likely it is
to result, Extent: How many people it effects and Duration: How long it
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): Mill said that the quality of the
pleasure was more important than the quantity. The higher pleasures
he believed were academic (writing music, painting) while the lower
pleasures were the gratifications of the body's desires (sex, food). He
said "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better
to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"
You look at individual actions separately to determine what is moral
and from this general rules arise. For example; in a car accident a
pregnant woman would be treated before other casualties because the
pregnant woman and her unborn child have a greater potential for
future happiness than any individual involved in the crash. Therefore
the general rule "treat the pregnant woman first" becomes evident.
However this rule can be disregarded if another option would cause
A criticism of Act Utilitarianism is that it is impossible to make the sorts
of calculations it requires, although Bentham talked of a 'rule of thumb'
which meant that you could repeat a previous decision under similar
circumstances. Another is that people need rules - if you allow people
to lie, steal etc. this could become too great a temptation e.g. to lie to
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The benefit of it is that it has integrity and allows you to
stick to providing the greatest happiness in all situations if you so
General rules are established and from these rules certain actions can
be deemed wrong. The principle of utility is therefore applied to a rule,
so the rule will hold if in general following it leads to greater