Introduction to Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory, meaning the morality of actions is judged by the outcomes they produce.
  • Created by Jeremy Bentham and later developed by John Stuart Mill, it proposes that the greatest good is whatever brings the most happiness to the most number of people.
  • Central to utilitarianism is the concept of utility, or usefulness. Actions are morally right if they maximise overall utility.

Key Principles of Utilitarianism

  • Greatest Happiness Principle: Proposes that actions are right if they promote happiness and wrong if they produce the reverse of happiness.
  • Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus: An algorithm for measuring pleasure or pain coming from a specific action, considering factors such as intensity, duration, certainty, and more. Used to predict and evaluate consequences.
  • John Stuart Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism: Redirects the scope of utilitarianism from merely quantity of pleasure to include the quality of pleasures, distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures.

Two Variations of Utilitarianism

  • Act Utilitarianism: Examines the utility of each individual action. An action is morally permissible if it maximises utility. This form of utilitarianism is more closely associated with Bentham.
  • Rule Utilitarianism: Considers the utility of rules of conduct. An action is morally permissible if it follows the rule that would lead to the greatest utility if generally adopted. This variation is more associated with Mill.

Strong and Weak Utilitarianism

  • Strong Utilitarianism: Argues that one should always act in a way that maximises utility. It’s an absolute, with no exceptions.
  • Weak Utilitarianism: Proposes that maximising utility is generally a good thing, but it doesn’t always need to be the determining factor. It allows exceptions.

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

  • Criticism regarding predicting consequences: It’s often impossible to accurately predict all the consequences of an action.
  • Criticism around tyranny of the majority: Utilitarianism could lead to injustice if the happiness of the majority is gained at the expense of the minority.
  • Criticism about reduces human experience: Critics argue that utilitarianism reduces every facet of human experience to a calculation of pleasure or pain.
  • Criticism related to moral obligations: Utilitarianism’s focus on outcomes undermines moral obligations and rights; it could justify immoral actions if they lead to overall happiness.

Defenses of Utilitarianism

  • Practicality: It provides a clear method to make decisions, particularly in complex moral situations.
  • Communal Focus: It encourages actions that benefit the group rather than the individual, promoting a socially cohesive society.
  • Flexibility: As a consequentialist theory, utilitarianism can accommodate a wide range of circumstances and moral dilemmas.