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Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that shows the reasons for a person choosing to carry out an action – it justifies an action being for the greater good. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory which means it looks at the consequences or result of an action – to decide whether it is subsequently right or wrong this also makes it a consequentialist theory. The theory of Utilitarianism began with Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism is where actions are judged based upon the pleasure gained in the result. Jeremy Bentham was the man who originally thought of and came up with the idea of Utilitarianism, he believed in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. There are two types of Utilitarianism; Bentham’s theory is Act Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism is about creating the greatest amount of pleasure in a particular situation through a particular action.
Bentham believed and used research to conclude that people would naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. ‘Nature had 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 to determine what we shall do.’ (Bentham) Bentham truly believed that pleasure was the purest form of good and pain the sole evil; he saw this as moral fact. This is why Bentham is also known as a hedonist. The hedonists were a group of Greek people who sought to find true pleasure; ‘hedone’ means pleasure in Greek, this group included people such as Plato and Aristotle – who agreed that good was found in the greatest happiness.
The principle of utility was a way to find out how good or bad an action was, based on its utility (usefulness). An action that creates the most pleasure and the least pain is a useful one and therefore it is good – pain v pleasure. For Bentham good, is the maximum amount of pleasure with the minimum amount of pain afflicted and bad, is pain with little pleasure received. Bentham believed that in any situation a person should think of a solution that will lead to the maximum happiness for the maximum of people.
For example, if a man with the cure for cancer and a young child were in a car crash, you would assume to save the life of the child as they are considered to be innocent, however with Bentham’s theory you should do the maximum amount of good for the maximum amount of people, which means you should save the man. By saving the one man you then save thousands, the action of letting the child die is out weighed by the amount of people you have saved if using Bentham’s theory.
However Bentham knew that it would be hard to predict the outcome of every situation and know which route to take and so in order to help, he came up with the ‘hedonic calculus’ which you can use to work out which option will produce the greatest amount of pleasure. There are seven factors which you must take into account when choosing what to do in a certain situation; the intensity of the pleasure, the duration of the pleasure, how certain pleasure will be the result, how near the pleasure is to you, how continuous is the pleasure, is there likely to be pain mixed with the pleasure and how widespread will the pleasure be.
When faced in a dilemma, Bentham believed that you could chose the ‘good’ option – the option which would do the most amount of good and the least amount of pain. For example, if you are in a plane crash and you could only save one person; your wife, your child or a doctor who has the ability to save many. Bentham believes in this situation you must use ‘the hedonic calculus’ to form a solution to your problem. The doctor could make thousands of lives better and create much more pleasure than if you save the wife or child, however this tough decision would leave you without pleasure. Following Bentham’s utilitarianism you must save the doctor.
When a decision has to be made over a moral situation, the hedonic calculus is used. In using the hedonic calculus the individuals involved should be considered by applying the seven factors to them in relation to the options for the choice of action you have.
‘Utilitarianism has no serious weakness’ Discuss
It is true that Utilitarianism does have many strengths however it does have weaknesses too. Bentham, Mill, Hare and Singer’s theories each have their own faults.
Utilitarianism is very straight forward and easy to understand. It is very natural for a person to consider the outcome and how much pleasure they will gain before going through with an action. It is a principle that aims to bring people happiness this is very appealing for many in societies. Many of the ideas and theories can be related to specific actions and situations and therefore can be helped out in the process of considering what to do in certain places, for example; giving to charity gives happiness to the poor and is good whereas acting cruelly towards someone is bad.
The use of Utilitarianism can be carried out universally. Utilitarianism is not dependant on any religion, culture, race or society as it is about a person or groups happiness. This use of utilitarianism is great because it makes people picture and understand other people’s point of view for example; if you were to hit someone then instead of carrying out the action, you would think about the outcome – picture yourself in the other person’s shoes – understand that pain which you would cause and subsequently stop yourself from hurting them. You have to think of other people’s pleasure and pain rather than just your own. This is mainly used in preference utilitarianism as Hare put it ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’.
The fact that Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory is both good and bad. It is natural for us to weigh up the consequences of an action before carrying it out however it is never going to be easy to always predict the outcome of an action completely right for example; if you go out to steal to help your family survive but then get caught and arrested then you can no longer carry out the ‘good’ action of helping your family.
Utilitarianism may also be argued against because it ignores or seems to ignore the importance of following duties – the act itself may be right or wrong for a reason other than the amount of happiness it produces, for example an old friend is on his death bed and asks you to swear that you will give ï¿½30,000 (all of his money when he dies) to his favourite park he used to visit but on the way to handing over the money you see an advert that says it needs ï¿½30,000 to save 10,000 people. Out of duty you must give the money to the park however if you are following Utilitarianism your belief is that the money must going into creating the most good/ happiness which would be saving those 10,000 people. W.D Ross believed it was important for you to follow and carry out your duty.
Bentham’s Act utilitarianism although was flexible and relied on the consequences it had no defence for minorities for example; one slave being treated badly but creating happiness for a whole family would be thought of as right. Also it is very impractical having to calculate using the ‘hedonic calculus’ every decision we make. There is also a difficulty defining what pleasure is for example; a paedophile’s pleasure is very different to another person’s. Mill’s Rule utilitarianism is very practical and sets about certain rules for society that must be maintained which can help societies to operate. However there are weaknesses to rule utilitarianism too again there is no defence for minorities or any help at what defines happiness but also this time if you are following rules you could end up obeying them even when more happiness can be created by disobeying them.