The theory of utilitarianism determines the rightness or wrongness of an action by its consequences. This is determined by measuring the amount of pleasure or pain brought to someone caused by an action. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory of ethics, this means that it is concerned with the outcome and the consequences, meaning that an act is not right or wrong in itself but is right or wrong depending on the outcome of said action. The main founder of this theory was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).
Bentham worked to fight many things during his time such as industrialisation, mass migration and poverty. Utilitarianism is a relativist system – meaning there are no fixed rules, it is also concequentialist – this means that morality is by the consequences that directly follow an action. Utilitarianism tends to be brought down to one main rule and that is: ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’ whilst the principle of this rule is aimed to satisfy the majority, it does have its flaw is the fact that the minority still suffer.
The principle of utility, as mentioned before, is: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ this means that if certain situations occur, advocates of utility would always choose the option that brought about the most pleasure for the most amount of people, this means that they would choose the action that brings about the better outcome, regardless as to whether or not the action may be perceived as right or wrong by society in normal circumstances due to the fact they are interested in bringing the most amount of pleasure possible. However, with this principle, comes a downside in the fact that whilst the majority may be satisfied or happy in a particular situation, there will always be a minority, regardless of how small, that are unhappy.
However followers of the principle of utility may be encouraged to engage in wrong doings such as torture, whilst most would see this as an awful act, in certain circumstances, utilitarian’s may still take part in the act as it would bring about large amounts of pleasure for a large amount of people, with the minority still suffering, in this case, the person who was being tortured. The fact that utility is based on bringing about happiness this means that anyone who is an advocate of utilitarianism or follows the theory, is hedonistic, this means that they strive for pleasure and seek to avoid pain as often as possible, however what might be pleasure for some, may be pain for others.
One that point, some may say that pleasure is subjective, meaning that pleasures are all different for different people, for example in a situation one may choose the option that he/she thinks will bring about a certain pleasure that they enjoy, however because they enjoy it, doesn’t me everyone will, so in actual fact even though they are trying to bring about pleasure due to their own tastes, they may not be causing any pleasure at all and may even cause some small elements of pain, due to the fact that people have different ideas on what pleasure is.
Along with the point of different types of pleasure, J.S Mill stated that there are higher and lower pleasures in society, whilst he was around during the 19th century, obviously people’s views on pleasure has changed, however, Mill was thought to believe that opera and poetry were among the higher pleasures in life, whereas today, they may be seen as lower pleasures.
One main question may be, ‘how does one measure pleasure?’ and in answer to that, Bentham devised the hedonic calculus, a form of calculation, designed to work out how great the pleasure or pain is that results from a particular action.
There are 7 significant criteria identified by Jeremy Bentham and they are: Intensity (intense pleasure is the best), Duration (pleasure is better if it lasts longer), Certainty (pleasure that is definitely going to happen), Propinquity (pleasure that is close at hand), Fecundity (pleasure that promotes further pleasure), Purity (pleasure not mixed with pain) and Extent (pleasure that affects people). In order for an act to bring about a high amount of pleasure, it must satisfy majority of the criteria above, whilst it may be near impossible to find an act that satisfies all of the criteria, a pleasure will still be regarded as high or low, based on the amount of criteria met.
Another key aspect of utilitarianism is that whilst there is act utilitarianism that focuses on the consequences regardless of the action taken place, there is also rule utilitarianism, created by J.S Mill. Rule utilitarianism the principle is applied to a selection of rules which are in turn, used to determine what to do in a particular situation.
With rule utilitarianism, acts are either right or wrong regardless of what the outcome is. Rule utilitarianism can be easily compared to and agreeing with the law, in the fact that there are certain acts that are just plain wrong due to the fact that they are unlikely to bring out pleasure for a large amount of people, such as: murder or theft. With rule utilitarianism, it avoids the problem of ‘evil’ pleasures found with Bentham’s view, such as sadism. Rule utilitarianism also tends to bring about the most amount of pleasure without excluding the minority that suffer like act utilitarianism does, as rule doesn’t allow crimes against minorities that benefit the majority and allows the concept of justice.
Rule utilitarianism came was devised due to the criticisms of Bentham’s act utilitarianism, in the case that act utilitarianism just follows the rules instead of trying to predict the outcomes. As well as the two already mentioned, there are more types of utilitarianism, such as: Preference utilitarianism and two-rule utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism was devised by Peter Singer (1946-present), preference utilitarianism sought a way of decision making that took in to account the interest of the minority, unlike the previous theories.
Singer stated that every individual’s preference must be taken in to account when deciding the best interests of the group and not only that, but every ones interests should be given equal value. Whilst the interests of the minority are more concerned with in this theory it still follows the fact that the right thing to do in a situation is what is best for the greatest number, however it has no reference to pleasure or pain. Preference utilitarianism has its own value that is followed, and that is: ‘The greatest amount of preference satisfaction, for the greatest amount of people’. With this theory it has advantages due to the fact that the minority do not tend to suffer as the ideology is concerned with preference satisfaction.
The other utilitarianism was two-rule utilitarianism. This theory was created by R.M Hare (1919-2002) this is a theory that satisfies both act and rule utilitarianism by bringing both of their values together. In this theory, morality, based on rules and customs is acceptable for most situations, but occasionally we will need to use utilitarian thinking where we have to consider the consequences of an action. Whilst there is many different criticisms of both act and rule utilitarianism, Hare tried to bring them together with altercations to satisfy any criticisms.
Those are many of the different important concepts that involve utilitarianism There are many key aspects to utilitarianism that I haven’t mentioned such as negative utilitarianism, Karl Popper (1902-1994) and motive utilitarianism, Robert Merrihew Adams (1937-present) these are all based around the main principle of utilitarianism however are not as well known as the other theories.
Each of the features mentioned are key when it comes to understanding utilitarianism however, overall, I believe that the fact that everything fits in with everything else makes it a rather simple subject, on the whole, you know what the principle is and how simple it is, you know other theories that potentially challenge said theory but most of all you are given a way to measure and calculate it all.
Overall I do agree with the theory of utilitarianism as life should be about pleasure and happiness, even if it is not available to you, either find it or bring it to others by an action. As a person who is an advocate of happiness and a hater of physical pain, I believe that life should continuously be one big happy moment, with that in mind, I would have to agree with the theory of utilitarianism, as its main principle is shared with my positive outlook, ‘bringing about pain for as many people as possible’.
To what extent are these important concepts undermined by relevant criticisms (9) It could be argued that pleasure is subjective, meaning that pleasure is different for different people and may even link in with a social context in the fact that, what certain people find to be pleasurable may depend on social class, environment, background, social/peer groups etc…, in the fact that an upper-middle class man may think of pleasure to be poetry or theatre, whereas a lower-working class man, may view pleasure as going to watch their favourite sports team and may find poetry or theatre boring, and vice versa. With that in mind we can refer back to J.S Mill’s theory of there being higher and lower pleasures, given this, it may affect the ideology of hedonism, in the fact that people all strive for happiness but with the idea to avoid pain.
Another criticism is that utilitarianism as a whole can justify wrong doings in desperate times of need, such as torture, in extreme situations; it may be seen as justifiable to torture someone as long as it will bring about happiness to many people, even though such an act would usually be considered as unjustifiable and unequivocally wrong. Some critics of utilitarianism may also argue that pleasure has a negative knock on effect in the fact that pleasure for one person may cause pain to another, for example, if a job came down to two desperate people, whoever got it would be happy, the other; sad and upset. Some say that measuring pleasure was hard and therefore the hedonic calculus was created to make it easier, however it is still hard to apply and can also be impractical for quick response situations, where time is of the essence and not all of the criteria can be fully applied.
The idea of utilitarianism is to predict outcomes and see how much pain/pleasure a particular action would bring; however, humans are not psychic and cannot accurately predict the future or the outcomes of an action. Linking to the point about one personas happiness comes another person’s pain, on a larger scale, whilst applying the utilitarianism principle, people are favouring the majority at the expense of the minority, whilst, in comparison they may seem more insignificant, when taking in to account the amount of people you’re helping, they are still humans that deserve happiness and avoid pain just like anyone else.
Overall I do believe that there are many potential criticisms of the utilitarianism ideology however, I do not think anyone can argue against it by challenging its purpose and principle of bringing about happiness to a large amount of people, which in reality, is what most people strive for in life, as some would argue that there is no better feeling than happiness and joy.
Courtney from Study Moose
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