16 December 2012
1. Explain the main principles of Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that believes in one ultimate moral principle known as the Principle of Utility; “This principle requires us, in all circumstances, to produce the most happiness that we can.”1 Utility is found in everything which contributes to the happiness of every human being. Happiness is equated with moral goodness, where the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”2 The Principle of Utility overall places emphasis on consequence rather than intention, it gives priority to the theory of what is good over the theory of what is right, and is indifferent in regards to the distribution of happiness.
This theory is a form of consequentialism in which the determination of right and wrong is not based on one’s intent; rather it is based solely on the outcomes or consequences of choosing one action versus another. In addition, actions are not only judged on whether or not they create happiness, but also on whether or not that happiness had an effect on the largest possible number. The theory requires that we first evaluate both the good and bad consequences of an action, then determine whether the total good consequences is greater the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally right. If this were true then it would be of no real concern if the happiness produced was a product of deceit and manipulation. Essentially, the ends justify the means.
Utilitarianism is also a very impartial theory, as it moves beyond the scope of one's own interests and takes into account the interests of others, with each person’s happiness considered to be equally significant. Within Utilitarianism, because everyone concerned counts equally, no one’s interest are more important than another’s; strict equality implies strict impartiality. Everyone concerned counts and counts equally. Therefore, if one has a utilitarian belief system, then they would accept a decrease in their own happiness in order to increase the overall happiness of everyone concerned.
2. How does the theory differ from Hedonism? Why did the theory gain popularity in social and political theory?
“The idea that pleasure is the one ultimate good—and pain the one ultimate evil—has been known since antiquity as Hedonism. Hedonism expresses the plausible notion that things are good or bad because of how they make us feel.”1 A hedonist believes that the good life consists solely in the pursuit and experience of pleasure or happiness, and that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them. Hedonism views pleasure subjectively and judges it in terms of intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood, implying that pleasure can be measured quantitatively. Utilitarianism on the other hand is considered a form of social hedonism, meaning it is more concerned with the greater good of society. Many utilitarian’s believe that pleasure and pain are objective states that can be more or less quantified.
Utilitarianism as ethics in a social context works hand-in-glove with the democratic process and is enormously influential in North American society. It requires no philosophical or theological justification and presumes no foundational or universal propositions. In other words, it does not require a belief in God or in a universe of natural laws. Moral action, which is determined by the degree to which that action is useful or harmful, frees a society from believing or having to agree in divine standards or a metaphysical theory of morals. In addition to being attractive for its...