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Utiliarianism is a theory formulated by Jeremy Bentham in his book Act Utilitarianism in his book An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation. It was later developed by John Stuart Mill.

Act Utilitarianism is a relativistic, consequentialist and teleological theory.

Relativistic = this is because there are no universal moral norms or rules that each situation has to be looked at. This is because this theory looks at every situation independently due to every situation being different.

Consequentialist = this is because that moral judgements (whether something is right or wrong) should be based on the outcome or the consequences of n action.

Teleological = this is because this theory is concerned with the end purpose or goal of an action, for utilitarianism this should always be happiness.

The principle of utility is that we should aim to achieve ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’

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Jeremy Bentham

The theory of Utilitarianism was originally formulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Jeremey was a philosopher, economist and social reformer. He developed the theory of Act Utilitarianism in his book An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation. He believed that it would be possible to judge the good or evil in a particular action according to the consequences of actions.

Jeremy said that “we should aim, in all situations where there is a moral choice, to act in such a way as to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.”

Bentham’s theory is known as Act Utilitarianism because it states the principle of utility should be applied to every act performed in each unique situation.

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Hedonic Calculus

Since ‘happiness or pleasure’ is so difficult to define and since these concepts vary so much from person to person and from situation to situation, Bentham suggested ‘The Hedonic Calculus’ as a means of defining happiness or pleasure. The Hedonic Calculus is the central principle of Utilitarianism. Bentham suggest seven criteria by which happiness or pain could be measured, these are;

1.   Intensity; is the happiness or pain deep or superficial?

2.   Duration; is it temporary or permanent?

3.   Certainty; how sure are we that a particular act will lead to pain or happiness?

4.   Extent; does the happiness or pain touch the whole life of a person or community or does it only affect limited aspects?

5.   Nearness or propinquity; does the act create pain or happiness for people closely around us or for people far away from us?

6.   Richness or fecundity; is it happiness or a pain that enriches or impoverishes life?

7.   Purity; is the act morally pure or morally ambiguous?

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Hedonic Calculus

The purpose of the hedonic calculus is to measure the moral value of a particular act by measuring the consequences of the act in terms of the quantity of happiness or pain rather than the equality.

This is the Consequentialist Principle; it is not the inherent morality of an act in itself that is fundamental, but rather the consequences of the act in the lives of individuals or communities. This principle is basic to Utilitarianism.

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Criticisms of Bentham's Theory

Vardy and Grosch noted three criticisms;

>       Its basis to measure happiness in terms of quantity rather than quality.

>       The principle is entirely dependent on the possibility of being able to predict consequences of any act.

>       It is difficult to define what should be counted as pleasure and what should be counted as pain.

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John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament. Bentham was his mentor and close family friend.

His form of utilitarianism was different from Bentham’s as he believed that the quality of pleasure an act produced was more important than the quantity of pleasure. Mill agreed with Bentham’s idea of the principle of utility ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, but like many others he saw a flaw which was that it was concerned entirely with the quantity of the happiness an act produces.

 However, Mill was concerned that one person’s unhappiness could be entirely overlooked if the majority were happy. As a result of this flaw, Mill shifted the focus in hi version of utilitarianism from the quantity of happiness / pleasure to the quality of the pleasure. He recognised that some pleasures were superior to others and developed a system of higher and low pleasures.

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Higher and Lower Pleasures

Higher pleasures are those associated with the mind, these are superior pleasures. This is because Mill said that intellectual pleasures help humans to develop their intellect.  Lower pleasures are those associated with the body, these are inferior pleasures. These are pleasures such as sex and eating. However, Mill did recognise that people must first achieve the lower pleasures (eating / sleeping) before they can aim for the higher pleasures.

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Criticisms of Mill's Theory

Vardy and Grosch noted two criticisms;

>       How is it possible to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures?

>       Is it possible to rely on a moral theory that is based on a single moral principle, namely, the greatest happiness of the greatest number

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Act Utilitarianism

This version begins by asking which act or acts leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number and then on the basis of these responses tries to create general moral laws. This version is seen as Bentham’s theory as the principle of utility should be applied to every act performed in each unique situation. This means that any act is justifiable if it brings the greatest happiness to the greatest amount of people. 

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Rule Utilitarianism

This version begins by trying to agree on general moral rules and proceeds to devise specific acts which are morally acceptable or unacceptable on the basis of these rules. Mill’s theory is seen as rule utilitarianism. This is by using principle of utility and then drawing up general rules based on past experience. This means you can keep the principle without assessing every situation. There are two types of Rule Utilitarianism, these are;

Strong Rule Utilitarianism = a strong rule utilitarian believes that any rules formulated and established through the application of the principle of utility should never be broken as they guarantee happiness for society.

Weak Rule Utilitarianism = a weak rule utilitarian tries to allow for the fact that in extreme cases the rule created using the principle of utility needs to be broken in order to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

When comparing both versions of utilitarianism it can be seen that; Act utilitarianism begins with actions in order to develop ethical rules, while rule utilitarianism develops rules in order to agree on morally acceptable action. Act utilitarianism places the greatest emphasis on the consequences of a particular action. Whereas rule utilitarianism seeks to define what is morally right by considering the consequences of acting on the basis of particular rule which are based on the principles of utilitarianism.

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Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Mel Thompson suggests that utilitarianism can be criticised for a number of reasons;

>       The concept of happiness is so wide that it can mean completely different things for one person to another.

>       The use of the happiness of the majority as an ethical principle doesn’t proved any help in situations

>       Utilitarianism is dependent on our ability to know what gives us the greatest happiness to the greatest number. This is a criticism because what makes us happy today might not make us happy in 10 years’ time.

Utilitarianism cannot account for those situations where a person feels that a particular act is morally right whatever the consequences

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Strengths of Bentham's Theory

>       It is based on common sense – common sense that all situations need a different approach and it tends towards what makes people happy

>       Takes into account cultural diversity – each culture is allowed to operate equally and in parallel without one being considered more superior than others

>       It’s humanistic – the theory is concerned with what is good for people and it’s not restrained by other sources of authority e.g. God.

>       Good way to measure whether acts are good or not – Bentham created the principle of utility as a method of social reform; it is a way of testing a law to see if it its utility (usefulness) for human kind. The greatest good for the greatest number of people – any action should achieve this

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Weaknesses of Bentham's Theory

>       It has the potential to justify any action e.g. gang ****

>       It is impractical – this is because we can’t go through the Hedonic Calculus in every situation we come across

>       It is unequal – it doesn’t treat everyone equally in a true sense of equality

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Strengths of Mill's Theory

>       The utilitarian tendency to justify any action is very limited. The concept of higher and lower pleasures eliminate any of the negative side effects

>       It still takes into account the situation but also maximises the importance of the individual because some things now are not acceptable

>       It expresses the Christian teaching of loving your neighbour as yourself

>       Community centred not just I want

>       In the golden rule of Jesus “do to others as you would have them do to you”

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Weaknesses of Mill's Theory

>       It can be considered to be elitist – who are you to say that your pleasure is higher than anyone else’s

>       How much quantity of lower pleasure would outweigh the quantity of a higher pain

>       More people tend to follow lower pleasures than higher pleasures. So Mills idea really isn’t the greatest happiness for the greatest number

>       Utilitarianism is a contradiction with God’s commands as if lying, stealing and killing could lead to greater happiness for the greatest number then it can be justifiable. This is a contradiction as God says you shouldn’t do these things.

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Compatible with Christianity

Strong rule Utilitarian’s and many Christians believe in absolutist and deontological rules. For example, they would agree on the commandment ‘do not lie’, Christians because of it being one of the Ten Commandments and a strong rule because it fulfils the principle of utility.

A Utilitarian would claim the ultimate goal is happiness. Some may claim that religion is based upon making people ‘happy’ by re-establishing a right relationship with God.

It encourages people not to be selfish. Bentham states is isn’t about our own happiness but the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ Christianity teaches to love your neighbour.

Mill believed that his Utilitarian ethic had caught the very spirit if the Christian Golden Rule – treat others the way you wanted to be treated.

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Non-Compatible with Christianity

Although rule utilitarianism uses rules, these rules are derived from the fact that they fulfil ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ and not based on any divine command.

Many religious believers adhere to moral absolute like the Ten Commandments and adopt a deontological / absolutist approach to ethics, whereas act utilitarian’s do not, they adopt a relativistic / consequentialist approach.

In the Bible in Genesis it states humans were made it God’s image. Therefore all humans deserve equal treatment and Utilitarianism goes against this teaching.

An act utilitarian’s goal is to achieve happiness, whereas for a Christian their goal is to do God’s will.

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Strengths of Utilitarianism

The theory treats everyone the same – no one gets special treatment due to their emotional or social attachments.

Bentham has provided humans with a means of calculating the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’ using the hedonic calculus.

For many people ‘happiness’ is an important aspect of decision making as is it their main aim in life.

Act Utilitarianism is pragmatic and concentrates on the effects of an action.

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Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

Happiness is subjective – people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘pleasure’.

Using the hedonic calculus to calculate ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ is impractical.

Utilitarianism fails to consider that we have certain duties or obligations towards others.

Act Utilitarianism relies upon a human’s ability to predict the consequences of an action which are impossible.

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