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Key terms

Relativistic= There are no absolute moral rules that everyone must obey

Teleological= An ethical system that is concerned with the consequences of actions

  • Utilitarianism, from the latin word 'utilis' meaning useful, is an ethical theory based upon the principle of utility which says that the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness for the most people


  • Began with the work of Scottish philosophers Frances Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith
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Jeremy Bentham- Act utilitarianism

Bentham stated that it is possible to judge the good or evil in an action depending on the consequences of the action

Bentham devised the hedonic calculus to calculate the most pleasurable actions. He suggested that: 

- Good or bad actions can be worked out according to predicted results

- We can calculate which action is more likely to produce the right result by reaching a happiness score

- The aim is to measure the moral value of an act by reference to the consequences

- It measures the quantity of the pain or happiness

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The hedonic calculus

The hedonic calculus offers 7 elements:

Intensity- Is the happiness or pain deep or superficial

Duration- Is it temporary or permanent?

Certainty- How sure is it that the act will lead to happiness or pain?

Propinquity- Does the act create happiness/pain for people close to us?

Fecudnity- Does the pain/happiness make things better or worse?

Purity- Is the act morally pure?

Extent of pleasure- Does the happiness/pain touch the wholel ife of a person or just part?

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John Stuart Mill- Rule utilitarianism

He criticised Bentham's utilitarianism because he thought that: 

- It justified what he saw as lower pleasures

- It was possible to educate people to seek higher pleasures

Higher pleasures- Pleasures of the mind eg: learning things and helping others

Lower pleasures- Pleasures of the body eg: eating and drinking

Mill believed that morality should be: 

- Based on what is good- truth, beauty, love and friendship

- Based on higher pleasures because they have greater moral worth

- Based on certain rules that promote happiness, such as keeping promises and not stealing

- About following established rules and considering the consequences of an action before carrying it out

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The harm principle

Mill proposed the harm principle which suggested that:

- The majority can only pressure the minority if it prevents harm

- Not all pleasures are equal

- Pleasures of the mind are superior

- He said "It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"- This means that it comes down to the idea that wisdom allows one to dwell in multiple states hypothetically and a lack of wisdom restricts this possibility

- It measure the quality of happiness

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Alternative types of utilitarianism

Preference utilitarianism

- Peter Singer

- The goal of an ethical action should not be happiness but the satisfaction of one's preferences

Negative utilitarianism

- Karl Popper

- Actions shouldn't strive to maximise pleasure

- They should seek to reduce pain in society because the avoidance of pain is more valuable

Welfare utilitarianism

- The goal of an action is to provide the necessary conditions in which to live comfortably eg: human rights

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Evaluation- Strengths

- It's common sense- Happiness is a universal goal for everyone

- It gives a clear, consistent ethic- If we were all utilitarians, everyone would know where they stood

- It's flexible and avoids fixed decisions- It doesn't force people to conform

- It promotes equality and provides a democracy- It considers the interests of all and then favours the majority

- It doesn't rely on religious principles

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Evaluation- Weaknesses

- The future is difficult to predict- It promotes only the best consequences of actions

- Pleasure cannot be measured- You can't quantify two different pleasures

- There's no justice- It allows the punishment of the innocent as it causes the greatest happiness for the greatest number- known as tyrany of the majority

Happiness is subjective- Different thigns make different people happy

- It allows evil pleasures- Some people find immoral things pleasurable but it's producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number

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