Utilitarianism is a moral theory generally considered to have been founded by Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century English philosopher and social reformer. It is centered on the concept of happiness, and those who seek it. The idea is that all people seek happiness, and that it is the ultimate goal of all human beings to be happy. Therefore, according to classical utilitarianism, when a person wishes to act in an ethically sound manner he or she should strive to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest possible amount of people. This is known as the greatest happiness attitude. Another, similar idea is that a person should always strive, if incapable of producing happiness, to reduce unhappiness. As the theory is wholly focused on the outcome of a person’s actions, it is classed as a “consequentialist” theory, i.e. a theory that concerns it with consequences and not actions in themselves. Utilitarianism can be seen as a highly mathematical theorem, looking at the total units of happiness that a particular action gives rise to.
For instance, I might want to go out and have drinks with some friends and my boyfriend or I could find something more family oriented and do something fun with my son and my boyfriend. Consider that my son is only little for a short time, would I rather have drinks and regret the hang over later or share a memory with my little boy. Taking my son out for a night might add 10 units of happiness to the world’s total stock, whereas going out for drinks would only add a total of 6. Certainly, the latter would make a greater quantity of people happy (the former only benefiting one person), but it is the quantity of happiness produced that is of the first importance to utilitarianists. But let us look more closely at Bentham’s utilitarianism. To understand his approach more fully, it is vital that one come to an appreciation of exactly what he meant by “happiness”. His ideas here are, really, quite simple. Bentham thought that we should look at happiness as being based on pleasure. Naturally, it follows from this that he also felt that we should treat unhappiness as something consisting of pain.
This view on happiness has led his particular brand of utilitarianism to be seen as a hedonistic theory. Furthermore, Bentham did not distinguish between different forms of pleasure. To him, anything that gave rise to happiness – be it drugs or reading – was fundamentally good. Other philosophers have striven to develop Bentham’s theories further. One of the more notable of these is John Stuart Mill, who sought to distinguish between what he termed “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Mill disagreed with Bentham’s all-inclusive view on pleasure, feeling that there was a fundamental difference between the varying forms of pleasure available to people, and that some had a finer quality than others. It was Mill who put forth the notion that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. Mill’s idea was fairly straightforward, namely that while there are many simple, sensual pleasures in life, such as eating or drinking, there are also certain pleasures which are of a more cerebral nature, such as listening to classical music or reading poetry.
According to Mill, these latter pleasures are of a greater quality, and should therefore be considered more important. He posited that someone who has experienced both forms of pleasure would naturally feel inclined to choose the higher pleasures. For instance, a man who is familiar with both tasty food and good poetry would view the latter as something more valuable than the former. This is a fairly straightforward exploration of the most common forms of utilitarianism. The most important thing to remember about these theories is that they are consequentialist and, above all else, that they are concerned with the greater good. Utilitarianists don’t care about your personal agenda or whether your actions happen to hurt some people. As long as the eventual results of your actions lead to more pleasure than pain, you’re in the clear.
There were a number of things Mill did to change Utilitarianism. Mill said: “Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Mill also linked Utilitarianism with Christian morality. He connected the theory with the teachings of Jesus. He said that the ‘ideal perfection of utilitarian morality’ was abiding by the ‘Golden Rule’-‘Do onto others as you have them do to you.’ This made many more people accept Utilitarianism as it linked with their religion. Rules were introduced into Utilitarianism by Mill. The rules introduced were ones that generally brought about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
For example, Mill argued that society needs the principal of truthfulness as it brings the most happiness on the long run. Utilitarianism is a theory that Christians can relate to. Mill brought it closer to the Christian church by introducing Rule Utilitarianism. This would be closer to the principals Jesus lived by. For example, it was against the Jewish law to work on the Sabbath but when people were in need, Jesus bent this rule and healed them. The largest connection Christianity has with Utilitarianism is the death of Jesus. He was crucified and died for the sins of mankind-sacrificing himself for the majority. However, Utilitarianism does accept evil where Christianity most certainly does not.
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