Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham

'The Principles of Morals and Legislation' 

(where he developed utilitarianism)

  • Spent most of his life critiqung the law and campaigning for social justice reform
  • Thought society should see to benefit its citizens
  • Hedonist

Can split his theory of utilitarianism into three parts:

1. Motivation

2. The Principle of Utlity

3. The Hedonic Calculus

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Motivation

Hedonism

(maximising pleasure and reducing pain)

  • Human behaviour can be explained with reference to primary motives pain and pleasure - it is one's goal
  • Bentham also believed that pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life
  • "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of pain and pleasure"
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The Principle of Utility

'The greatest good for the greatest number'

  • Also known as the greatest happiness principle
  • Utility in this sense is the usefulness of the results of actions
  • Good is defined in terms of pleasure
  • The larger the number of people that an action produes pleasure for, the better the action is
  • This is a quantitative theory as it focuses on the greatest number.
  • It is also a teleological theory as it focuses on the results of an action
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The Hedonic Calculus

'Priced F'

  • The measure Bentham used to judge the quantity of the pleasure produced by an action to find the best action to take
  • Takes into account different aspects that can affect the quantity of pleasure/pain

Purity - how much the pleasure is wholly pleasure

Remoteness - how near the pleasure is to you

Intensity - how strong the pleasure is

Certainty - how definite you are that it'll create pleasure

Extent - how widespread the pleasure is

Duration - how long the pleasure lasts for

Fecundity - the likelihood that this pleasure will generate more pleasure

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Evaluating the Hedonic Calculus

Strengths

  • Accounted for everyone, not just those making the decision
  • Forces you to consider the action and its consequences - teleological
  • Does not require religion
  • Does not take personal beliefs into accout
  • Could restrain bias

Weaknesses 

  • Unuseful when there is a personal attatchment to a cause/outcome
  • A lot of uncertainty - teleological problem
  • Subjective - difficult to make the measuring of happiness mathematical
  • Some people need special consideration
  • Does not take personal beliefs into account
  • Does not necessarity match instinct (mother's love) 
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John Stuart Mill

'Utilitarianism'

  • Believed that the well-being of the individual was of greatest inportance, whereas Bentham only considered the majority.
  • Differentiated between different types of pleasures and established that not all pleasures are morally equal.
  • Can be used in response to the 'tyranny of the majority' problem with Bentham's utilitarian approach.
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The Tyranny of the Majority

A significant problem of Bentham's utilitarianism

  • Five sadistic guards are torturing a single prisoner, who is in extreme pain.
  • Under Bentham's quantitative utilitarianism, as the majority of the people in this situation are receiving pleasure, it is morally acceptable.
  • An example of this is the Romans enjoying watching the Christians being fed to the lions in the Bible. 
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Higher and Lower Pleasures

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

  • Mill measures pleasure qualitatively
  • Higher pleasures are intellectual pleasures. Mill claims that a person will always value the higher over the lower pleasure.
  • Lower pleasures are associated with the body, such as eating, drinking and resting. The lower pleasures provide powerful gratification but if we overindulge, they bring pain. 
  • Mill's theory of utilitarianism considers all groups in the situation, even the minority.
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Evaluating Bentham and Mill's utilitarianism

Strengths:

  • Singer - developed the theory by chosing to evaluate 'preferences' over happiness as not everyone chooses happiness or has the same idea as to what happiness is.
  • Universal - every culture agrees with the principle of utility.
  • Secular - does not require a belief in God
  • Democratic - it is a fair way to run a country as it balances everyone's interests.
  • Greatest good - it makes sense that this is the end aim.

Weaknesses:

  • The tyranny of the majority
  • Naturalistic fallacy - Just because people desire pleasure, this does not make pleasure desirable. Just because the majority of people desire something, this does not mean they should. 
  • Immesurable - pleasure is immesurable and incomparable
  • Trust - not everyone can be trusted to make the right decision wihtout rules to follow
  • Subjective - everyone has different definitions of happiness
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Act Utilitarianism

Case by case basis

  • Each individual action is considered and a judement is made about the balance of good and evil in that situation.
  • The calculation and decision is made by the person presented with the situation.
  • The principle of utility is applied to every situation to maximise utility.
  • It avoids setting up rules as each situation is considered differently.
  • It focuses on the human desire for well being and the drive away form evil and harm.

Examples:

  • Lying is acceptable in some situations, such as an adulterer hiding their liasons from their partner to maximise their pleasure or lying to a Nazi about a hidden Jewish family. 
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Rule Utilitarianism

Establishing a common good

  • Sets up a series of rules that will maximise the utility as a whole
  • The result of the action when repeated in different scenarios is what matters so there may be an occasion when more harm is done but in the long term more people benefit.
  • Can take a qualitative or quantitative approach
  • Promise-keeping and trust is important for relationships to flourish as they generate long term good
  • Provides a guide for what to do instead of taking each individual situation into account, which would take a long time.
  • Allows for special circumstances, e.g looking after children as they need additional help (act utilitarianism treats everyone equally)

Examples:

  • Following the highway code even if it is quicker to drive on the other side of the road and nobody is at risk of getting hurt as in the long term it creates a habit of driving safely that ensures nobody gets hurt.
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