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Outline the key features of utilitarianism

By Karen1998 Apr 20, 2015 735 Words
Outline the key features of utilitarianism

The theory of utilitarianism was developed by and associated by Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism is a teleological ethical theory where the moral value of an action can be judged by its consequences. Three main philosophers have come up with different types of utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham introducing Act Utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill trying to improve the flaws that he encountered with Bentham’s theory with his Rule Utilitarianism and lastly, Peter Singer with his preference utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism is the original and official form of utilitarianism which states that we must on any occasion act in the way which will produce overall consequences better than those that any other act open to us would produce. Therefore, the greatest happiness principle should inform on any act that we undertake. It only focuses on the outcome of the action and not concerned with the motive or intention of the action. Jeremy Bentham, being an hedonist, which he believes that all humans naturally seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. He stated “nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure… they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” Therefore, according the Bentham, an action is right if it brought more pleasure and wrong if it produces pain. Once Bentham had established that pleasure and pain were the important qualities to determine the moral values, he then developed the utility principle. The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness. Usefulness refers to the amount happiness caused by the action. The theory is known as the greatest happiness principle which is ‘an action is right if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” believing that this would create happiness, and an intrinsic key to life. The possible consequences of different actions must be measured clearly to establish which option generates the most pleasure and the least pain. He introduced the hedonic calculus to measure the consequences. The Hedonic Calculus has seven different elements which include that intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent of an action. Act Utilitarianism states that the principle of utility should be applied to every individual situation.

John Stuart Mill saw Bentham’s theory and tried to improve it in his own way which he introduced Rule Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism teaches that we should establish rules based on the greatest happiness principle and then follow these rules. Therefore there is no need to decide the greatest happiness in every situation because following the rules should in general produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Individual acts can therefore be judged as right or wrong by reference to the rules. Mill’s basic idea was that pleasure of the mind that spirit were more value than pleasure of the body. He believes that higher pleasures are generally more intellectual pleasures such as learning, reading and so on. Whereas, lower pleasures are more sensual pleasures such as eating, drinking, sex, etc. Therefore, reading a book, learning something new would be far superior and preferable as humans can only experience these. He said, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” this means that humans are much more capable of experiencing higher pleasures than animals. Therefore, even if humans are dissatisfied their knowledge of such higher pleasure makes their lives better than animals. Rule Utilitarianism can be divided into two sections which is Strong and Weak rule utilitarianism. Strong rule utilitarians always follow these rules no matter what the outcome will be and believe that these rules should never be broken. Weak rule utilitarians however believe that these rules can be broken if more pleasure is produced.

Lastly, Peter Singer’s modern version of utilitarianism which is Preference Utilitarianism. Preference utilitarians believe that something is right if it leads the greatest fulfilment of preference for as many as possible. They consider whether a decision is right or wrong by looking whether it fits in with what people would prefer. Peter Singer was concerned about the minorities and felt that they should also be included when considering what is best for everyone. He also believes that animals have preference, not just humans. And this is because they also feel pain and they have a preference to not feel pain.

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