Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy in which the happiness of the greatest number of people in the society is considered the greatest good. According to this philosophy, an action is morally right if its consequences lead to happiness (absence of pain), and wrong if it ends in unhappiness (pain). This is why it is described as a ‘consequential theory’.
Many philosophers have proposed their views regarding Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and political radical. He is primarily known today for his moral philosophy, especially his principle of Utilitarianism.
He argued against the ‘Natural Law’ theory. He also thought that the classical theories of Plato and Aristotle as well as notions such as Kant's ‘Categorical Imperative’ were too outdated, confusing and/or controversial to be of much help with society.
Influenced by many famous individuals, especially empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume, Bentham adopted what he took to be a simpler approach to the problems of law and morality and therefore grounded his approach in the ‘Principle of Utility’.
The Principle of Utility:
· Recognises the fundamental role of pain and pleasure in human life.
· Approves or disapproves of an action on the basis of the amount of pain or pleasure delivered as its consequence.
· Equates ‘the bad’ with ‘the pain’ and ‘the good’ with ‘the pleasurable’.
· Asserts that pain and pleasure are capable of ‘quantification’ and therefore can be used as measurable units.
This leads onto the ‘pleasure versus pain’ principle, originated by Sigmund Freud (although its significance was briefly noted by Aristotle), which influences the decisions people make, the actions they carry out and the habits they indulge in.
The ‘pleasure versus pain’ principle is the foundation of hedonism; the idea that life is to be lived to the full, and pleasure to be sought as a primary goal whilst pain is to be avoided at all costs.
The teleological nature of the concept of Utilitarianism as a whole, emphasises the importance of good consequences as all of its theories work towards minimising pain, and therefore having what is seen to be: a good consequence with the most pleasure gained.
Gaining utmost pleasure is also related to Benham’s notions in Utilitarianism, where the ‘Felicific Calculus’ is used. The ‘Felicific Calculus’ is an algorithm formulated by Bentham for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause.
The ‘Felicific Calculus’ consists of several variables, which Bentham classed as the circumstances:
· Intensity – How strong is the pleasure?
· Duration – How long will the pleasure last?
· Certainty – How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
· Extent – How many people will be affected?