Ethics- Utilitarianism


What is Utilitarianism?

-theory behind "Greater good"

-teleglocial theory. Opposite of deontological theories which are based on moral rules, on whether the action itself is right or wrong. Telelogical theories of ethics look at consequences. (result of action) -Consequentialist theory >someone who decides whether an action is good or bad based on consequence.

-Theory began with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Test question on working out whether action was good or bad would be "The greatest happiness of the greatest number". Betham > concerned with social and legal refrom. Wanted to develop an ethical theory which established whether something was good or bad according to its benefit for the majority. >prinicple of utility

-"Good" is defined in terms of pleasure or happiness. -an act is right or wrong according to the good or bad that results from the act and the good act is most pleasurable.

-since it focuses on the greatest number, bethams theory is quantitative.

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Origins of Hedonism

-idea that "good" is defined in terms of pleasure or happiness >makes Utilitarianism a hedonisitic theory. 

-Greek philosophers who thought along similar lines introduced term >Eudaimonia ("well-being") both Plato and Aristotle that 'good' equated with the greatest happiness, while the Epicureans stressed 'pleasure' as the main aim of life.

-Aristotle >ulitmate end of human desires and actions is happiness. Pleasure sometimes accompanies this, it is not the chief aim of life. 

-Pleasure is not the same as happiness, as happiness is a results from the use of reason and cultivating the virtues. It is only if we take pleasure in good activities that pleausre itself is good. This idea of Aristotles is taken up by John Stuart Mill

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Jeremy Bentham's approach

-developed idea around>pleasure and it is based on ancient hedonism, pursued physical pleasure and avoided physical pain. -Most moral acts are those that maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Only moral if it brings greatest amount of pleasure and least amount of pain.

-happiness =pleasure - pain.  Hedonic Calculus.> equation/method used to help us choose the most moral action/ whether it would result in a pleasurable outcome & work out possible consequences of action. Whatever is good or bad measured in quantitve way. 7 elements:

-1. intensity (of pleasure) >how deep? 2.duration >how long? 3.certainty >certain or uncertain of plesure occuring? 4.remotness >far or near? 5.chance of succession >how continuous? 6.purity >secure? 7.extent >how universal? 

-Bentham's utilitarianism> universal hedonism -highest good is the greastest happiness for g. no. Actions are judged as means to an enddescribed as Act Utilitarianism. >Euaimonistic, consequentialist, measurbale and quantitative. 

-B. argued we should be guided by the principle of utility and not by rules. 

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John Stuart Mill's approach (part.1)

-also a hedonist and accepted that happiness is of the greatest importance> stressed happiness rather than pleasure.    -Greatest Happiness Principle > "G.H.P holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain."

-Quality of pleasure > affirmed with prinicple of utility. Mill then modifies Bentham's approach, espically the quantitive emphasis. Mill says: some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others, absrud quality is not also considered as well as quanitiy.

-objects Bethams >utilitarians are just pleasure-seekers. Christian and Roman example: many Romans get a lot of pleasure from seeing C. being eaten by lions. here- greatest hap. is the Romans, produced by an act (C. being eaten) than is surely quite wrong? (**** example). Quality of pleasure that satisfies a human is different from that hich satisfies an animal. Person> always choose higher quality, human pleasures, reject all the merely animal pleasures. >>quality not quantity. Mill argues> intellecutual pleasures (reading, poetry, music) that count. Not eating, drinking or sex. 

-happiness>soemthing people desire for its own sake. But need to look @ life as a whole.

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John Stuart Mill's approach (part.2)

-Universabilty> in order to derive the principle of the greastest good (happiness) for the greatest number we need the prinicple of universalisability. >

1.Each person desires his own happiness > therefore this person ought to aim at his happiness > therefore everyone ought to aim at the happiness of everyone.

-last proposition does not logically follow> means that Utilitarianism demands that people put interests of the group before their own interests. Compares to 'The Golden Rule if Jesus of Nazareth", positive view of human nature, powerful empathy for eachother. 

-Rule Utilitarinism (another element of Mill)> need of some moral rules in order to establish social order and justice. followed universally, would most likely produce the greatest happiness. 

-Rule Utilitarianism > Consequentialist, Universalistic, Qualitive. 

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Comparing Bentham and Mill

'The greatest good (pleasure) for the greatest number >' 'The greatest happiness for the greatest number"

Foucused on the indiviual alone > We should protect the common good. Universalisitic.

Quantitative (hedonic calculus) > Qualitative- higher/lower pleasures.

Act Utilitarianism > Rule Utilitarianism.

In search of maximisation of happiness

Consequentionalist > Consequentialist.

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Henry Sidgwick's approach

-argues that the balance of pleasure over pain is the ultimate goal of ethical decisions. Closer to Bentham than Mill, as he argues how is it possible to distinguish one higher order pleasure from another. 

-Justice > concerned with justice in society like Mill. Positive view on human nature. 


- obvious differences, but both are descirbed as Act Utilitarianisns.

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Act Utilitarianism

-Accroding to Act Utilitarianism the principle is applied directly to a particular action in a particular circumstance. > need to look at the consequences of a particular act and what will bring about the greatest happiness


-diffiucult to predict the consequences. - potential to justify any act. -difficulty in defining pleasure. -no defence for the minorities. -impratical to say that we should calculate the morality of each choice. 

-Relative, telelogical, consequential

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Rule Utilitarianism

-According to Rule Utilitarianism the priciple is applied to a selection of a set of rules which are in turn used to determine what to do in particular situations. > believe rules should be formed using utilitarian principles for the benefit of society. 

-R.U > enables us establish rules which will promote the happiness of humanity and will generally be right in most circumstances. Strong Rule Utilitarianism- believe these rules should never be disobeyedWeak Rule Utilitarians- should generally accepted rules or guidelines, not always be adhered to indefinitely. May be situations where the better consequence might be achieved by disregarding the rule (where it might be better to tell a lie)


-difficult to predict consequences. - difficult to define what constitutes happiness. -no defence for the minorities. -invoke rules means that the approach becomes deontological not telelogical. -Followers can either be strict rule-followers or rule-modifiers.

-Deontological, relative, consequential 

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Peference Utilitarianism

-more recent form of Utilitarianism. Associated with R.M Hare, Peter Singer and Richard Brandt. 

-judges moral actions according to whether they fit in with the preferences of the individuals involved. approach asks: What is in my own interest? What would I prefer in this sit.? however because Utilitarianism aims to create the greatest good for the greatest number, necessary to consider the prefrences of others in order to achieve this. 

-R.M. Hare > consider our own pref. and those of others. equal prefrences to others. focuses on empathy, also argues for universlisability.

-Peter Singer > we should take account of all the people affected by our actions. These have to be weighed and balanced and then must choose consequence thats best possible consquences for all those involved. different to Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick.

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Strengths of Utilitarianism

Strengths: -Straightforward and based on single prinicple, aims to create a happier life for individuals and groups. - relates to actions which can be observed in the real world. - consequentialism is also a strength, as when we act it is only natural to weigh up the consequences. -acceptence of the universal principle is essential for any ethical system. important to go beyond your own personal view. -promoting well being of the greatest number- this is the basis of the health care system. -Preference Utitilitarianism gives valuable principle of ebing an impartial obseerver. empathy. 

Weaknesses: difficult to predcit consequences and the accruacy of feelings etc. -ignores importance of duty. An act may be right or wrong for other reasons other than the amount of good or evil it produces. (dying millinoare story) - advocate injustice -emphasis on pleasure or happiness. impossible to see general happiness. how do you measure one pleasure against another. avergae total or maximum happiness? -Does not consider motives and intentions so rejects the principle of treating people with intrinsic value. -too impersonal, not considering rights of the individual. 

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