Define Utilitarianism and tell me about Jeremy Bentham. Does the United States military endorse this view of Ethical thinking? What are your feelings on the “Greater Good for Most” theory, do you agree with this theory? around 200-300 words.
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Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our actions. By “good,” utilitarians understand happiness or pleasure. Thus, the greatest happiness of all constitutes the standard that determines whether an action is right or wrong. Although the basic theme of utilitarianism is present in the writings of many earlier thinkers, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) were the first to develop the theory explicitly and in detail. Both Bentham and Mill were philosophers with a strong interest in legal and social reform. They used the utilitarian standard to evaluate and criticize the social and political institutions of their day—for example, the prison system and the disenfranchisement of women. As a result, utilitarianism has long been associated with social improvement.
Utilitarianism tells us to bring about the most happiness for everyone affected by our actions.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were important early utilitarians.
Bentham viewed a community as no more than the individual persons that it comprises. The interests of the community are simply the sum of the interests of its members. An action promotes the interests of an individual when it adds to the individual’s pleasure or diminishes the person’s pain. Correspondingly, an action augments the happiness of a community only insofar as it increases the total amount of individual happiness. This is what Bentham had in mind when he argued for the utilitarian principle that actions are right if they promote the greatest human welfare, wrong if they do not.
For Bentham, pleasure and pain are merely types of sensations. He offered a “hedonic calculus” of six criteria for evaluating pleasure and pain exclusively by their quantitative differences—in particular, by their intensity and duration. This calculus, he believed, makes possible an objective determination of the morality of anyone’s conduct, individual or collective, on any occasion.
Bentham rejected any distinctions based on the type of pleasure except insofar as they might indicate differences in quantity. Thus, if equal amounts of pleasure are involved, throwing darts is as good as writing poetry and baking a cake as good as composing a symphony; watching Shakespeare’s Hamlet has no more value than watching Jersey Shore. Although he himself was an intelligent, cultivated man, Bentham maintained that there is nothing intrinsically better about refined and intellectual pleasures than about crude or prosaic ones. The only issue is which yields the greater amount of enjoyment.
John Stuart Mill thought Bentham’s concept of pleasure was too simple. He viewed human beings as having elevated faculties that allow them to pursue various higher kinds of pleasure. The pleasures of the intellect and imagination, in particular, have a higher value than those of mere physical sensation. Thus, for Mill the utility principle must take into consideration the relative quality of different pleasures and pains, not just their intensity and duration.
Although Bentham and Mill had different conceptions of pleasure, both men equated pleasure and happiness and considered pleasure the ultimate value. In this sense they are hedonists: Pleasure, in their view, is the one thing that is intrinsically good or worthwhile. Anything that is good is good only because it brings about pleasure (or happiness), directly or indirectly. Take education, for example. The learning process itself might be pleasurable to us; reflecting on or working with what we have learned might bring us satisfaction at some later time; or by making possible a career and life that we could not have had otherwise, education might bring us happiness indirectly. In contrast, critics of Bentham and Mill contend that things other than happiness are also inherently good—for example, knowledge, friendship, and aesthetic satisfaction. The implication is that these things are valuable even if they do not lead to happiness.
Bentham and Mill had different conceptions of pleasure, but they both equated it with happiness and believed that pleasure was the ultimate value.
Bentham and Mill cared about happiness because they implicitly identified it with well-being, that is, with what is good for people. In their view, our lives go well—we have well-being—just to the extent that our lives are pleasurable or happy. Some moral theorists have modified utilitarianism so that it aims at other consequences in addition to happiness. And some utilitarians, wary of trying to compare one person’s happiness with another’s, have interpreted their theory as requiring us not to maximize happiness but rather to maximize the satisfaction of people’s desires or preferences. The focus here will be utilitarianism in its standard form, in which the good to be aimed at is human happiness or well-being, but what will be said about standard or classical utilitarianism applies, with the appropriate modifications, to other versions as well.
Although this chapter will later consider another form of utilitarianism, known as “rule utilitarianism,” utilitarianism in its most basic version, often called act utilitarianism, states that we must ask ourselves what the consequences of a particular act in a particular situation will be for all those affected. If its consequences bring more net good than those of any alternative course of action, then this action is the right one and the one we should perform.
SIX POINTS ABOUT UTILITARIANISM
Before evaluating utilitarianism, one should understand some points that might lead to confusion and misapplication. First, when deciding which action will produce the greatest happiness, we must consider unhappiness or pain as well as happiness. Suppose, for example, that an action produces eight units of happiness and four units of unhappiness. Its net worth is four units of happiness. Suppose also that an opposed action produces ten units of happiness and seven units of unhappiness; its net worth is three units. In this case we should choose the first action over the second. In the event that both lead not to happiness but to unhappiness, and there is no third option, we should choose the one that brings fewer units of unhappiness.
Six important things to understand about utilitarianism.
Second, actions affect people to different degrees. Playing your radio loudly might enhance two persons’ pleasure a little, cause significant discomfort to two others, and leave a fifth person indifferent. The utilitarian theory is not that each person votes on the basis of his or her pleasure or pain, with the majority ruling, but rather that we add up the various pleasures and pains, however large or small, and go with the action that brings about the greatest net amount of happiness.
Third, because utilitarians evaluate actions according to their consequences and because actions produce different results in different circumstances, almost anything might, in principle, be morally right in some particular situation. For example, whereas breaking a promise generally produces unhappiness, there can be circumstances in which, on balance, more happiness would be produced by breaking a promise than by keeping it. In those cases, utilitarianism would require us to break the promise.
Fourth, utilitarians wish to maximize happiness not simply immediately but in the long run as well. All the indirect ramifications of an act have to be taken into account. Lying might seem a good way out of a tough situation, but if and when the people we deceive find out, not only will they be unhappy, but also our reputations and our relationships with them will be damaged. This is a serious risk that a utilitarian cannot ignore.
Fifth, utilitarians acknowledge that we often do not know with certainty what the future consequences of our actions will be. Accordingly, we must act so that the expected or likely happiness is as great as possible. If I take my friend’s money, unbeknownst to him, and buy lottery tickets with it, there is a chance that we will end up millionaires and that my action will have maximized happiness all around. But the odds are definitely against it; the most likely result is loss of money (and probably of a friendship, too). Therefore, no utilitarian could justify gambling with purloined funds on the grounds that it might maximize happiness.
Utilitarianism, another consequentialist theory, maintains that the morally right action is the one that provides the most happiness for all those affected. After assessing as best we can the likely results of each action, not just in the short term but in the long run as well, we are to choose the course of conduct that brings about the greatest net happiness.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine the likely results of alternative actions, and no modern utilitarian really believes that we can assign precise units of happiness and unhappiness to people. But as Mill reminds us, we actually do have quite a lot of experience as to what typically makes people happy or unhappy. In any case, as utilitarians our duty is to strive to maximize total happiness, even when it is difficult to know which action will produce the most good.
Finally, when choosing among possible actions, utilitarianism does not require us to disregard our own pleasure. Nor should we give it added weight. Rather, our own pleasure and pain enter into the calculus equally with the pleasures and pains of others. Even if we are sincere in our utilitarianism, we must guard against the possibility of being biased in our calculations when our own interests are at stake. For this reason, and because it would be time-consuming to do a utilitarian calculation before every action, utilitarians encourage us to rely on rules of thumb in ordinary moral circumstances. We can make it a rule of thumb, for example, to tell the truth and keep our promises, rather than to calculate possible pleasures and pains in every routine case, because we know that in general telling the truth and keeping promises result in more happiness than do lying and breaking promises.