Utilitarianism

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  • Created by: Francesca
  • Created on: 27-04-14 18:03

Appeals to Human Nature

  • Human beings share a common interest in the variety of utilitarian strands that have developed historically e.g. 
  • David Hume - Benevolence and sympathy 
  • Bentham and Mill - Pleasure and Happiness
  • Peter Singer - Preferences
  • R.M. Hare - People's wefare 
  • G.M Moore - Pleasure, friendship, aesthetic appreciation 
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Fair, Objective and Democratic

  • Bentham's Hedonic Calculus - "Everybody is to count for one and nobody for more than" - no person's pleasure greater than another's 
  • Historically - radically challenged elitist, aristocratic system 
  • Instead emphasising Rousseau's battle-cry of the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"
  • Application to social developments of 19th Century - Bentham known for his penal and Parliamentary reform 
  • Compatible with Marxist democracy in giving the proletariat their just rewards for their labour and the authority and power to determine their future.
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Appropriate Ethic for a Secular and Scientific Age

  • Post-Enlightenment World 
  • Challenge to metaphysical and theistic foundations 
  • High regard for individual autonomy 
  • Importance of pleasure and happiness is people's lives, here and now, something governments take seriously 
  • E.g. Peter Singer's Preference Utilitarianism - recognises respecting people's desires when assessing moral dilemmas 
  • Siginifcantly - replace SHLP wth  criteria of personhood
  • Due to advances in scientific technology - possible to maintain life with minimal quaility e.g. life support machines, in latter stages of Motor Neurone Disease 
  • Respects dignity and preferences of person involved + cost effective - in a world of limited resources - more sensible to respect a patient's wish to die - funds spent elsewhere 
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Common Ground with Christian Ethics

  • Bentham's Principle of Utility compared to Jesus' Golden Rule - "Love your neighbour as yourself" 


  • Rationale behind Christian teaching of redemption may be understood in a utilitarian manner: 
  • Vicarious suffering by Jesus on the cross 
  • To redeem humanity 
  • Self-sacrifice of the one for the needs of the many 


  • Thus - Utilitariansism upholds the message of a benevolent God showing interest for the well-being of humanity
  • Perhaps ironically - rejects belief in the existence of such a metaphysical deity
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Utilitarianism - Suitable for Government

  • Bentham + Mill's political and social reforms - significant impacts on public policy
  • E.g. Penal reform, greater rights for women and children 
  • Hedonic Calculus  - philosophy behind Whig government's Social Reform of the New Poor Law 1834 
  • Stated life inside workhouse must be less pleasant than life as an independent labourer 


  • More recently - Labour government of Blair's administration - taken seriously its duty and commitment to promote the quality of life for the overwhelming majority of its electorate 
  • focusing on a social policy programme of Education Health, and Law and Order reform 
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Commits Naturalistic Fallacy

  • G.E. Moore famously argued "one cannot deduce an ought from an is" (Principia Ethica 1903)
  • Mere statement of phychological fact that people actually desire happiness for its own sake 
  • Cannot deduce the evaluative conclusion that pleasure is desirable i.e. that it ought to be desired
  • E.g. May desire something you ought not the desire 
  • E.g. Take hard drugs as it produces pleasure - but is taking hard drugs good? 
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Hedonic Calculus too impractical

  • When making moral decisions in the heat of the moment, lacking reflection 
  • E.g. you're on the top of a burning building - what do you do? 
  • Adding up 'pleasure units' - dubious exercise and difficult to measure accurately 


  • Equally - assessing different varieties and intensities of pleasue is too subjective 
  • Important development - J.S. Mill - instead of hedonic calculus people should come up with general principles which over the passage of time have promoted greatest happiness
  • as a result Individual judgements supported by past events - thus less pressurised and less subjective
  • Mill - weak rule utilitarian - advocated following such rules 
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Principle of Utility may undermine Freedom

  • E.g. International Example - State indoctrination by Chinese Government witnessed in 1989
  • Suppressed student uprising in Tiananmen Square
  • Communist government claimed the state, not the educated students, knew what was in the people's best interests
  • Giving students civil liberty to protest in their desire for greater autonomy - not deemed acceptable 
  • Central importance - who should have authority to determine what is regarded to be of utility and why? 
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"I'm Claiming the right to be unhappy"

  • Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - John, the Savage, rejects a life of artificial drug induced happiness.
  • A life of depth and meaning is one which embraces and learns from hardships and sorrow
  • Richness comes from pain and sacrifce 
  • Greater appreciation and ultimately purpose - moral growth 
  • Compatible with tthinking Professor John Hick 
  • Irenaean Theodicy - "Virtues are better hard won than ready made" 
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Suffers from the Fallacy of Composition

  • Even if one were to accept Bentham's psychological hedonism (people are motivated by pleasure/pain) and thus one should aim at his or her own happiness 
  • Does not logically follow that an individual wills the pleasure / happiness of the greatest number 
  • Jumping from an egotistical position to that of altruism 
  • Particularly when such altruism could come at the expense of personal gain 


  • Bentham's original philosophy reagrded scoety as a collection of individuals who work together for the common good, however in practice serious flaws: 
  • E.g. Global poverty remains a perennial stain on 21st century humanity
  • E.g. Government leaders - fall foul of putting altrusim into government polciy - e.g. George Bush, shortly after being elected withdrew America from its obligations of the Kyoto Agreement 
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Will of majority doesn't always make for good law

  • E.g. Majority of UK public - in favour of legalising voluntary euthanasia (2001: 82% opinion poll) 
  • Easily manipulated by the media 
  • All too often follow desires and inclinations failing to think through the implications of their decision
  • e.g. How might ethos of society change, affecting weak and vunerable people such as the elderly? 


  • Mill - aware of this criticism - In On Liberty drew an important distinction between private and public acts 
  • "Your freedom to punch me ends where my nose begins"
  • Any law which has a serious detrimental effect on the qualitative well being of otheers is wrong
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How is that pleasure distributed?

  • Not simply the amount of pleasure produced, but how that pleasure is distributed
  • Intuitionist W.D. Ross - serious objection to Bentham's utilitarianism 
  • Inadequate to focus purely on the amount of pleasure
  • Ignores demands of justice - justice not concerned simply with amount of pleasure but how and on what basis it is distributed 
  • Important question: Do these people deserve to receive pleasure? 


  • Implicitly unjust to raise the quantitiy of pleasure for the greatest number by a small amount at expense of severe suffering of a minority group - Bentham's Utilitarianism justifies this 
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Counter-Intuitive

  • W.D. Ross Criticism 
  • Ignores intrinsic goods that are contrary to our intuitive, innate sense of right and wrong 
  • e.g. even if it could be shown that happiness was greatest by lying to people 
  • Something simpy wrong about lying and deception - would make people reject such an ethic 
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Lacks Intrinsic Goods

  • Consequential, Instrumental morality - lacks intrinsic goods 
  • e.g. trust, honesty, dignity 
  • Creates ethos of uncertainty - people never really sure if they are valued
  • E.g. early 1980s many middle-aged business men - shown great loyalty accuring high profits for their companies - sacked overnight
  • replaced by YUPPIES (Young Urban Professional People) - cheaper and younger 
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Requires a non-utilitarian framework

  • In Order for Greatest Happiness Principle to work
  • Professor Alasdair MacIntyre - non-utilitarian framework required 
  • where intrinsic, deontological values enable people to flourish
  • E.g. Happiness may be promoted in a society that upholds intrinsic values of justice, liberty and honesty
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Problems of Act, Benefits of Rule

Consequences are difficult to predict

  • Act - no guidelines aside from Hedonic Calculus 
  • Too impractical 
  • Rule - benefit of receiving guidance from past rules which have shown to produce greatest happiness for greatest number 
  • Better position to accurately predict consequences 
  • Act - suffers from Bounded Rationality more than rule  - someone is unaware of  full facts or as Professor John Rawles states acting under a "veil of ignorance" - no guidelines from which it may predict outcomes which have occured in similar past situations 
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Problems of Act, Benefits of Rule

Act Utilitarianism is Self-Defeating

  • Peter Singer 
  • Illustrates problem with example of promise keeping 
  • Promises - made on understanding that they will be kept - rule utilitarian recognises as promoting happiness 
  • However, Act utilitarian may make a promise is one situation - no guarantee that they will always uphold promise keeping 
  • Thus one can never take seriously a promise from them - no confidence they will keep their promise 
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Problems of Act, Benefits of Rule

Act Utilitarianism is, by definition, an inconsistent philosophy

  • Make decisions following only the principle of utility 
  • If everyone followed Act Utilitarianism  - impossible to predict consequences 
  • So, by definiton, one could not will that everyone follow it, as if they did, the ethical theory would not work


  • Rule utilitarians - recommend following rules, which in past have promoted happiness - apporach can be universally applied + consequences predicted
  • Avoiding inconsistency of Act Utilitarianism 
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Problems of Act, Benefits of Rule

Does not take account of professional obligations 

  • Society functions by people recognising their obligations - once signed a contract 


  • E.g. Doctor - obligation to uphold patient's medical confidentiality
  • Act Utilitarian doctor - might report her patient's condition e.g. teenage pregnancy to girl's parents (thinking it would produce greatest happiness) - breaking trust and code of medical profession 
  • Rule Utilitarian - recommend following professional code - in past, such a code has promoted greatest happiness i.e. teenagers are happy to go to doctors for help as opposed to dealing with situation on their own 
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Problems of Act, Benefits of Rule

Does not take into account family relationships

  • Accused of undermining family relationships 
  • as it adopts an impartial approach 
  • "Everybody is to count for one and nobody for more than one" 
  • Overall happiness for greatest number - all that matters 
  • Implication: mum's birthday - better to donate money to Oxfam than buy her a present 


  • Whereas Rule Utilitarianism - spirit of utilitarianism is to be impartial 
  • Past experience  teaches that when preferential treatment is offered those who are close - those societies function well - producing greatest happiness 
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