Breif overview of utilitarianism.

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  • Created by: Hannah
  • Created on: 29-04-12 15:35


The principle of utility: An action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number.

Utilitarianism is a teleological theory, (from the Greek word 'telos' meaning 'end') so focuses on the consequences of an action, so the ends justify the means. Human beings try to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so what we 'ought' to do is based on this principle. 

Bentham was a hedonist who believed pleasure was the only good and pain the only evil. 'Hedone' is the Greek word for pleasure.

Bentham's utilitarianism is sometimes called Hedonistic utilitarianism.

He believed that an action was right if it produced the greatest good for the greatest number. In order to calculate the greatest pleasure of different consequences Bentham suggested the Hedonic Calculus.

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  • INTENSITY: How deep or superficial the happiness is.
  • DURATION: How temporary or permanent the happiness is.
  • CERTAINTY: How sure the happiness is.
  • PROPINQUITY: How near or remote the happiness is.
  • FECUNDITY: How likey the happiness is to recur or lead to further happiness.
  • PURITY: How free from pain the happiness is.
  • EXTENT: How far the happiness-giving effects of action will spread.

Everyone involved in the situation has to have the hedonic calculus applied to them, e.g. a 23 year old unmarried woman contemplating an abortion, her religious parents are also involved as well as the father who she is in an on/off relationship.

Make sure you know this for the exam!

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Mill was concerned that if the greatest good for the greatest number was quantitative (based on the number of people affected and the amount of happiness rather than the nature of that happiness), nothing would stop one person's pleasure being ignored for the good of the majority.

Mill therefore replaced Bentham's quantitative measures and focused on qualitative pleasures. His famous quote:

'It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied'

Mill divided these pleasures into higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures are intellectual such as poetry, art, writing and reading, and lower pleasures are bodily, such as eating, drinking, sex and drugs.

According to Mill the preferred type of pleasure are higher pleasures (intellectual).

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Act utilitarianism, mostly associated with Jeremy Bentham, is a theory which maintains that an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Benefits include that it is flexible, but criticisms include that it has the potential to justify virtually any act. Also, that it is impractical to suggest that we should measure each and every moral choice. Act utilitarianism can have some extreme results.

Rule utilitarianism, more favoured by John Stuart Mill, is a theory which maintains that a rule is good if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Benefits include that it overcomes some criticisms that act utilitarianism has, but criticisms include that following rules may not always bring about the greatest good.

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