Introduction to utilitarianism
- Takes it name from latin word 'utilis' meaning useful
- First developed by Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher and legal theorist of the 18th century
- Bentham sought to produce a modern and rational approach to morality which would suit the society of the industrial age.
- Was also the era of the French and American revolutions and the period of enlightenment so fundamental morality was being questioned.
- Relativist, consequentialist and teleological system of ethics, prescribing no fixed absolutes
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The principle of Utility
- Bentham argued that one should maximise happiness for the majority, 'the greatest good for the greatest number' a view known as the principle of utility & an important feature of utilitarianism
- Happiness was thus equated with moral goodness
- Bentham is identified as a 'psychological hedonist', since he regarded humans as being motivated by pleasure and avoidance of pain.
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- Bentham then put forward what he regarded as an empirical process for making moral decisions, known as the 'hedonic calculus', also another important feature of utilitarianism
- This consisted of 7 criteria one must consider when making a moral decision examples of this are:
- intensity- measure the deepness of happiness
- duration- how long happiness will last for
- means Bentham did also look at the quality of happiness, even though its primarliy quantitative
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Mill- Rule Utilitarianism
- Benthams God son John Stuart Mill modified his quantitative theory
- Mill was a leading politician and philosopher of his day & regarded utilitarianism as an important but flawed approach to ethics.
- Mill distinguished between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures
- higher pleasures engage the mind e.g. opera & poetry
- lower pleasures engage the body e.g. sex & eating
- stated 'its better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied' This means we should strive to achieve higher pleasures in life even if we fail rather than being contented achieving lower pleasure just b'cos its easy
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Distinction between rule and act util
- Bentham proposed an Act utlitarian approach, meaning that he treated each individual action seperately, without any rules to guide the individual.
- This is a very subjective theory.
- It can justify any act if the result generates the most happiness, it is impractical to measure every moral choice every time a decision needs to be made
- Mill meanwhile proposed that one should make rules based upon the consequence which tend to follow certain actions (e.g. stealing is breaking the law and casues pain, so we should have a rule against stealing).
- sometimes following the rule may not bring about the greatest good, how do we predict that?
- so despite the underlying idea of the promotion of happiness, we can see that Mill and Bentham arrived at 2 very different appraoches to morality
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Conclusion to utilitarianism
- Mill's approach may seem more believable and appealing than Bentham's, as rule utilitarianism answers many weaknesses associated with Bentham's Act util
- It allows the concept of justice and protects minority groups, not just the majority and also our society seems to support the idea of higher and lower pleasures because we naturally distinguish between them in every day life.
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Strengths to utilitarianism
- Offers a democratic morality that promotes general happiness and opposes individual pursuits, common sense system
- It is reasonable to link morality with the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain and misery.
- Natural to consider the consequences of an action when deciding what to do.
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Weaknesses to Utilitarianism
- Some pain is good and some pleasure may be bad, utlitarianism doesn't set out how the pleasures are distributed- not clear
- Relies on knowledge of consequences you can't predict
- Difficult to quantify pleasure
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