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Key Features of Utilitarianism Essay

The theory of Utilitarianism is based on the concept of utility, a theory of usefulness. Utilitarianism is a system of morality that generates us with what the most useful thing to do in different situations and outcomes. Different Utilitarian approaches to morality have emerged each with their own theory of good and community of concerning individuals. Featuring the main influential contributors to this theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. There are two types of theories, teleological and deontological theories. Firstly for the teleological theory, you would consider the ends, or the outcomes of your decision. It considers whether it is right or wrong depending on the different outcomes it might cause and not concerned with the motive or intention for an action. This is the most common thing to all Utilitarian, the teleological outlook. In this theory, the means justifies the ends.

Whereas the deontological theory concentrates on the moral rules that can’t be broken. For this theory, the most important ethical thing isn’t the result or the consequence of the action, but the action itself. If by nature that the action is wrong, then don’t do it. For example, a deontologist could day, ‘You should never steal, this means by the act itself of stealing is wrong. This theory suggests that the end never justifies the means. Introducing Jeremy Bentham, where his theory focuses on weighing up pleasure and pain. In 1789, in Principles of Morals and Legislation, he wrote: Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as what we shall do.

This is when the hedonic calculus came into the equation. Its purpose is to weigh up pain and pleasure generated by the available moral actions to find the best option. There are 7 factors that needs to be considered in this calculus before making the decision, starting with its intensity, considering how deep or superficial the happiness is, duration, how temporary or permanent the happiness is, certainty, how sure the happiness is, propinquity, how near or remote the happiness is, fecundity, how likely the happiness is to recur or lead to future happiness, purity, how free from pain the happiness is and extent, how far the happiness-giving effects of action will spread. This suggestion will only help the majority and no the minority.

It doesn’t give any protection to the minority, for example the sadistic guards, where the guards gain pleasure from torturing and the helpless prisoner gets pain but there are a higher number of guards comparing to one prisoner. So is it correct to say that what the guards are doing is right? For the calculas, what if someone doesn’t have all the available information for every 7 factors? Will the calculus still be put to use? There’s absolutely no guarantee in predicting the future because everyone is different. Each person has different views even if it’s on the same subject. The calculus is obviously flawed. J. S. Mill on the other hand, felt that Bentham had made a mistake in his assessment of what human beings desired the most. Mill thought that what was more important was that happiness will be most affectively gained when individuals seek their own needs. Mill knows that Bentham’s theory is based on quantitative level and that’s where he saw upcoming errors where human behaviours react to different things change everything. So, instead of focusing on quantity, Mill focuses on the qualitative pleasures.

He developed a system of higher and lower pleasures where the higher pleasure would be taken into consideration first before the lower ones. Mill stood up on the fact that pleasures of the mind were higher than those of the body. For example, Mill thought that pure bodily pleasure like food, drink, drugs and sex was not as high an objective as those on an intellectual level. There are two types of utilitarianism, act and rule. For act, the principle of utility is faced individually. All of the acts are decided by the resulting consequences even if it might break the law. It has the benefit of being flexible where the section of justification may vary. Meaning of this is that, one day it might be the right thing to do and another day it might be the wrong thing to do. It is said that the act states the most number of good for the most number of people is generally good. For example, it can be in a form of satisfaction, pleasure and happiness. Act utilitarianism is the application on a case by case basis. It states that, when faced with a choice, we must first consider the likely consequences of potential actions and from that choose to do what we believe will generate the most pleasure.

 The problem with this is that we have to take every single thing into account. By every dilemma that we face, we’d have to go through it first then make a decision to act upon it. It is closely associated with Bentham’s theory. For rule utilitarianism, it focuses on general rules that everyone should follow to bring about the greatest good for that community. For example, the rules are pursued by the whole community giving them convenience and reasonable rules to live by which ultimately brings the best result overall. This theory leans closer to Mill’s theory. In any situation, an individual must obey the rule even if it doesn’t lead to the greatest pleasure. By obeying all these rules, it brings the greatest good when everyone acts in the same manner.

Now, there are the weak and the strong where the weak utilitarianism doesn’t have to stick by the rules cause they chose not to abide by it therefore when it comes to certain situations, they have a free choice to either follow it or not. For example, although rules should be framed on previous examples that benefit society, it is possible, under specific circumstances, to do what produces the greatest happiness and break that rule. On the other hand, strong utilitarianism is where people never break the rules. So a strong rule utilitarian might say the “Do not steal” rule must never be broken and they would stick to it even though in some situations, it might be better if they did steal but to them, it’s the wrong thing to do no matter whether it brings them to a better condition.

Lastly, there are other forms of Utilitarianism such as the “Best Interest Utilitarianism” by Peter Singer where he tries to solve the problem that some pleasures are bad for us. Preference Utilitarianism by R. M. Hare where he tries to solve the problem that people have different ideas of pleasure even if it’s something very small and specific, not everyone wants and thinks the same. Ending with Motive Utilitarianism by Sidgwick where he tries to solve the problem of the difficulty of predicting consequences where he elaborates on the inaccuracy of an individual’s chances of guessing what’s going to happen in the future.


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