Examine the Key Ideas of Utilitarianism

9 September 2016

Examine the key ideas of utilitarianism Utilitarianism is a relativist, consequentialist and teleological system of ethics based on the idea of ‘utility’. This means usefulness and utilitarian suggest that everyone should be the most useful thing. The theory was devised by Jeremy Bentham who said “an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number”. He believed human beings are motivated by pleasure and pain. Bentham lived in an era of great social and scientific change and unrest; he wanted to produce a modern and rational approach to morality.

He was hedonist and believed that humans naturally pursued pleased and tried to avoid pain, he created the hedonic calculus in which happiness is measured with seven different elements including duration of happiness, the intensity of it and the purity of it. His theory is also known as the act utilitarianism – this is the belief that solutions to situations might change depending on the consequences of the act. He says ‘by utility is meant that property of any object whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness’ which summarizes Bentham’s view on his entire belief of utilitarianism.

Examine the Key Ideas of Utilitarianism Essay Example

John Mill Stuart modified the theory and criticised Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism and maintained that the well-being of a person was the greatest importance as Bentham’s theory allows sadistic pleasure for example, under Bentham’s theory, if 10 rapists were to rape the same woman, then using the hedonic calculus their action would be justified because more people are gaining pleasure at the pain of one woman, however, this would be morally wrong.

Mills then developed higher pleasure and lower pleasure; lower pleasures would be physical pleasures such as sex, alcohol while higher pleasures would be things like love and friendship and believed everyone would desire higher pleasure ‘it is better to be a pig dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. Therefore, rule utilitarianism fits more with John Mills theory as this means moral rules are formulated based on utilitarian principles and the individual can apply these situations to judge whether the act is acceptable or not.

Preference utilitarianism believes that you should take into account the preferences of the person concerned in each case until they are outweighed by the preference of others. This allows people to define what pleasure and pain is for them. R. M Hare argued for preference utilitarianism as he believes the “right thing” to do is to maximise the satisfaction of the preference of each individual involved. Peter Singer states ‘our own preferences cannot count any more than the preference of others’ showing that he was more concerned about the best possible consequence rather than ‘the greatest good for the greatest number. There is also negative utilitarianism which aims to bring about the least amount of pain or to prevent the greater harm for the greatest number. However, there are good things that cannot be experienced without some element of pain and a final branch of utilitarianism is descriptive utilitarianism which analyses how we behave rather than prescribing what we ought to do. Utilitarianism doesn’t say that the moral action is the one that maximizes the benefits or happiness of the person doing the action.

It must be the benefits and the happiness of everyone involved and each person count equally. All consequences must be counted including short-term and long-term consequences so that the extent can be foreseen. To what extent has this theory survived the challenges which it has faced? A straightforward advantage to the theory is that it’s based on a single principle of minimising pain and maximising pleasure and happiness; a system which obviously aims to create a happier life for individuals and groups.

Nevertheless, Bentham’s theory can be viewed as a swine ethic where there is a lack of protection for the minority like Phillip Petit says ‘so long as they promised the best consequence, it would forbid absolutely nothing: not rape, not torture, not even murder’ because under this theory if 10 rapists were to rape 1 woman, their action can be justified. Other advantages to the theory are that it encourages a democratic approach to decision-making as the majority’s interest is always considered therefore it’s likely to yield results that are in line with common sense.

However, approaches to the theory are subjective, for example John Mills theory is based on lower and higher pleasure to which Henry Sidgewick stated “in practice it is hard to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures” because of the subjectivity of ‘pleasure’ not everyone would find the same things pleasurable. The theory also brings about other ethical issues such as “prima-facie” duties – deciding between someone that might bring about the greatest good such as one family member or a man with the cure to cancer; one would be inclined to ave their family member. Therefore, the theory seems to ignore the importance of duty. In contrast, preference utilitarianism gives the valuable principle of being an impartial observer as it thinks about others interest or preferences as long as one also includes behaving justly which is what Bentham’s theory fails to bring across. In conclusion, it seems that the theory hasn’t been able to survive the challenges which it has faced. The fact that Bentham’s theory allows for sadistic pleasure makes it seem extremely immoral.

Whereas, Mills theory provides no option out of Bentham’s theory as it lacks the flexibility to make sensible choices in different situations. Moreover, the whole theory is based on the principle of pain and pleasure which is very subjective and therefore not everyone would believe in the same thing and for the theory to work; everyone would have to agree with each other. Although it does have its strengths, the flaw lies in the key features and as such it’s not practical and it’s very difficult to apply.

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