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In its simplest form Utilitarianism is a theory that says that you should decide what you do in order to
provide the most happiness and the least pain in a situation.
It is therefore Hedonistic it is centred around pleasure.
As you look at all the different possible outcomes of a situation to see where pleasure and pain will be
balanced the best, it is consequentialist or teleological.
As the outcome of a different ethical question will be different each time, it is reltivist.
Jeremy Bentham (17481832) stated that naturally we are ruled by two key things pleasure and
pain two basic instincts.
'Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is
for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do.'
(Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation, 1789)
Bentham said that we need to look at the possible things we might do and the various outcomes and
calculate how much pleasure and pain they might create, finally choosing the one that best maximises
pleasure and minimises pain. His approach is therefore quantitative.
He said we need to consider seven different factors, his Hedonic Calculus or the Felicific
1. Intensity (how great the pleasures/pains will be)
2. Duration (how long the pleasures/pains will last)
3. Certainty (how likely certain outcomes are)
4. Propinquity (how near to you the pleasures/pains will be i.e. how much they will affect you
5. Fecundity (how likely the pleasures/pains will be followed by similar pleasures/pains)
6. Purity (how likely the pleasures/pains will be followed by the opposite types of
7. Extent (how many people will be affected by it)
Advantages of Bentham's Utilitarianism
It is reasonable to link morality with the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain and
It is also natural to consider the consequences of our actions when deciding on what to do.
Criticisms of Bentham's Utilitarianism
You cannot predict the future so the calculations cannot always be accurate.
Pain can be good and pleasure can be bad, therefore utilitarianism can be contradicted.
There are certain things that are intrinsically good or bad, so there is no reason to do
calculations each time.
Should animals be considered in the equation? The environment?
Some would say that we have a particular obligation to our family.
The majority may sometimes be corrupt (for example two prison guards who got pleasure out
of torturing a prisoner might be allowed to do it under Bentham's Utilitarianism).
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John Stuart Mill (18061873) was uncomfortable with some of the implications of Bentham's
Utilitarianism. He suggested that utilitarian principles could be used to make 'rules of thumb' to live by.
He took a qualitative approach some pleasures are more valuable than others.
He divided pleasures into higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures are things such as
poetry and music lower pleasures are things such as eating and drinking.…read more