Utilitarianism at a glance

Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory. It is an easily identifiable method of looking at a problem. It rests on the principle of maximising happiness or pleasure and minimising pain. It is sometimes described as the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and the avoidance of pain for as many as possible.

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory (teleological) it looks at the likely consequences of an action rather than the action of doing. So in essence any action that provides good results for most people could be classed as utilitarian. It gives rise to the saying that the end justifies the means.

Utilitarianism is a relativist ethic. There are no absolute moral truths in utilitarianism. The only thing that is important is the consequence. Over a period of time the views of society may change, if 21st century society is happy about the result of a moral decision then utilitarianism will support it. That may well be despite the fact that previous generations found the same situation unacceptable.

Utilitarianism is an empirical theory. Consequences are observed or anticipated before moral decisions are made.

Utilitarianism is not a religious ethic. God’s commands or the expectations of the church are usually absolute in character and do not depend upon the will of the majority of people.

Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832

He worked on legal reform and wrote “Principles of Morals and Legislation” 1789.
His theory
His view on what drove human beings and what goodness and badness was all about.
His principle of “Utility” – his moral rule.
Hedonic calculus – a means for measuring how good or bad a consequence is.
Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters – pain and pleasure.
They determine how a person acts.
Humans seek pleasure and try to avoid pain.
He believed that pleasure was the sole good and pain was the sole evil in the world.
The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its utility or usefulness. Usefulness refers to the amount of pleasure caused by the action. Hence Benthamite Utilitarianism is sometimes called Quantitative Utilitarianism.

An action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number and the least pain or sadness.
His theory is democratic – pleasure can’t be for one person alone.
One strives to obtain the greatest happiness for the most people and the Hedonic calculus did the measuring.

Hedonic Calculus

This weighs up the pain and pleasure generated by the available moral actions to find the best option. There are 7 components.

  1. Its intensity
  2. Its duration
  3. Its certainty or uncertainty
  4. Its nearness or remoteness how wide ranging is it?
  5. Its ability to continue. How continuous is the pleasure?
  6. Its purity – the chance it has of not producing the opposite of 5.
  7. Who is affected by it?

The balance of pleasures and pains is compared with those of other options.
The action that leads to the best consequences is accepted.

It is a very straightforward means of deciding whether or not an act is moral.
It is popular with people because they seek pleasure.
It is up to date and in tune with public opinion. People seek pleasure and no one wants to prolong pain.
It can be followed by people with any religious belief or those with none.

It is very rough and ready and may be seen to be supporting fads rather than sound consequences.
Bentham does not distinguish between one sort of pleasure and another.
It assumes that all pain and hardship, wherever possible should be avoided.
The Hedonic Calculus is cumbersome and hard to apply on some moral issues.
Following the will of the majority may be a dubious ethical procedure.
The view of pleasure might not be shared by someone else. Think of a noisy party at 2am. You might enjoy it, but the neighbours would hate it.

John Stuart Mill 1806 – 1873
Mill was something of a child genius. His father was a follower of Jeremy Bentham, so the young Stuart grew up with a good working knowledge of Utilitarianism.He worked for the East India Company and at one time was also an MP.
He was the inspiration behind the modern feminist movement.
He admired Bentham’s work but was concerned about quantitative pleasure

Mill’s contribution
Mill rejected Bentham’s use of the Hedonic Calculus. In his view some pleasures are of a higher quality than others. This he felt was an entirely human affair. Humans could distinguish between pursuits that required a measure of intelligence and those that did not. The former Mill referred to as Higher Pleasures and the latter as Lower Pleasures. This gives rise to the name Qualitative Utilitarianism.

In detail Mill would say that pleasure of the mind are higher pleasures – intellectual
But pleasures of the body are lower pleasures – appetite.
That works all right as far as it goes, but it does mean that the classification of higher and lower is rather subjective.
Nevertheless Mill felt that the main points of Bentham’s work were correct.
Happiness is much sought after by people.
Like Immanuel Kant, he felt that everyone looked for it.
A happy well cared for population would flourish.

Many of the strengths of quantitative Utilitarianism of Bentham are also seen in Mill’s work
His form of Utilitarianism catered more adequately for minority groups.
He was trying to encourage less damaging pleasures.

Some people argue that his approach was elitist.
How could one compare and contrast two different sorts of pleasures?
If pleasures because classified, what was a consequentialist theory would become a deontological theory.

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