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  • Created on: 14-04-12 15:44

The Greatest Happiness Principle

the greatest happiness for the greatest number

The Greatest Happiness Principle, stated above, is at the heart of a number of ethical theories that fall under the umbrella of ‘Utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism is an incredibly useful, and increasingly popular, ethical position. Its many benefits are matched with some serious flaws. However, modern Utilitarianists have repeatedly adapted the theory rather than discard it. Peter Singer is one example of a Utilitarian whose ideas have gained great popularity in recent years.

Calvin and Hobbes cartoon (http://www.rsrevision.com/images/calvin_happy.jpg)


Bentham equated happiness with pleasure and the absence of pain. This was an empirical observation - people desire pleasure and seek to avoid pain. His scientific mind led him to believe that the study of ethics could be undertaken in a practical way, carefully measuring the possible consequences or outcomes of an action before deciding which choice to take.

Bentham’s theories led to extensive social reform affecting Parliament, criminal law, the jury system, prisons, savings banks, cheap postage etc, etc. What was revolutionary about Bentham’s theory was that it resulted in all people being considered when making laws. His felicific calculus (also called the ‘hedonic’ or ‘utility’ calculus) was helpful in determining how to measure different amounts of pleasure:

The Hedonic Calculus

Remoteness – how near it is

Purity – how free from pain it is

Richness – to what extent it will lead to other pleasures

Intensity – how powerful it is

Certainty – how likely it is to result

Extent – how many people it affects

Duration – how long it lasts

John Stuart Mill

Mill believed that quality was more important than quantity when it came to pleasure. For example, the pleasures of the mind are far superior to the gratification of the body’s desires. This deals with the problem of sadistic torturers, as their pleasure is of a significantly lower kind.

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’

Act Utilitarianism

You look at an action to determine what is moral, and from this general rules can be derived. E.g. when faced with a road traffic accident (rta) a paramedic will treat a pregnant woman first. This is because in any given situation, the pregnant woman and her unborn child have a greater potential for future happiness than any individual involved in the crash. By deciding how to act in a specific case, the general rule ‘Always treat a pregnant woman first’ can be derived. This rule is only a guideline, and should be discarded if doing so will bring about more happiness (e.g. if a brain surgeon is in need of treatment).

A big criticism of Act Utilitarianism is that it is impossible to make the


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