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Evaluating Utilitarianism

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Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that pivots around the belief that morality should be judged by consequence and the way in which an action can be deemed moral or immoral, depends upon the number to which it brings the greatest happiness. A decision can be defined as ethically correct under the theory of Utilitarianism if the moral choice provides the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’, proving that at the core of Utilitarianism are the ideals of pleasure and consequence. Although Utilitarianism provides a useful, simplistic way for making moral decisions, it has notable faults, which limit its capability as an ethical strategy.

Ethical theories can be classified into two groups; these being deontological theories and teleological theories. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory, so for a Utilitarian, actions are judged on the results that they accomplish. Morality is therefore centred on consequence rather than motives. Contrary to a deontological theory, which believes the action itself to be the most important rather than the outcome, Utilitarianism recognises that a course of action is considered good depending upon the outcome of a situation.

The 19th century thinker, Jeremy Bentham devised the utilitarian theory, encompassing the belief that human beings were motivated by the pathos of pleasure and pain. He believed that all humans sought out pleasure, whilst seek to avoid pain and that the moral result of an action could be deliberated in terms of pleasure and happiness. This belief that the main motivation for humans is pleasure is widely known as Hedonism, from the Greek word for pleasure ‘Hçdonç’. Although Jeremy Bentham understood that pleasure was a motivator, he believed that pleasure should be sought for the most number of people in each action that takes place, rather than pursuing pleasure simply for selfish purposes. Bentham stuck to the policy, that in every circumstance, the right course of action can be determined by what outcome would provide the greatest pleasure for the most people, for example, the building of a hospital would benefit a community much more than the building of an art gallery.

Bentham devised The Principle of Utility, claiming that an action can be determined right or wrong by its ‘utility’, or usefulness. The usefulness of an action refers to the amount of pleasure or happiness is caused by it. In order to ensure that the right course of action is taken, where the greatest good results for the most number of people, Bentham introduced a procedure to estimate the utility of an action. The idea that he proposed is recognised as the Hedonic Calculus, whereby seven points can be referred to so to determine an action’s value. When making an ethical decision, Bentham felt it obligatory to weigh up the possible outcomes of one’s actions in terms of the duration, likelihood, proximity, productivity and the number of people that will be affected by it. The Hedonic Calculus allows contemplation over an action dependent on its consequences.

The theory of Utilitarianism is recognised as a universal theory, meaning that it can be applied to literally every situation. It addition to this, Utilitarianism is egalitarian, meaning that it does not consider one person’s definition of pleasure to be of a higher state than another, in other words, it accepts all forms of pleasure to be of an equal status.

Although Mill upheld the Utilitarian belief that the welfare of an individual was of greatest importance and affirmed the utility principle, he became troubled over the Utilitarian theory being an egalitarian one. He could see that if all forms of pleasure were seen as equal then it would be difficult to differentiate the pleasure of from eating a chocolate bar, compared to that of the pleasure of having children and watching them grow up. He also realised that circumstances could occur where sadism or masochism could be determined as pleasurable, and therefore a majority could enforce this upon a minority. The most recognised example of this is of the ‘Sadistic Guards’ scenario, where a group of prison guards enjoy torturing a prisoner. Due to the egalitarian nature of Utilitarianism, certain forms of pleasure can be justified by the theory if they were carried out on the majority by the minority. Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism would morally accept this situation, as the result would still be the greatest good for the greatest number, where sadism would be defined as pleasurable, as the guards are gaining pleasure from torturing the single man.

Contrary to Bentham’s original principle of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill believed that pleasure should be qualitative and not quantitative and also that pleasures could be split into higher and lower order pleasures. Mill saw higher order pleasure as that gained when reading literature or going to the opera, whereas he viewed the lower orderly pleasures as bodily, for example, eating, drinking and sex. Mill therefore felt that if one had to chose, that the pleasures of the mind were to be preferred, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Although this version pressed out the creases of Bentham’s original account, it caused Utilitarianism to become elitist, where choosing to listen to classical music over drum and bass would be considered morally justifiable.

Utilitarianism exists also in the form of act and rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism is situational, where every action is judged in its own circumstances in order to reach a morally correct conclusion. In the form of act, utilitarianism has the ability to be flexible in that it doesn’t allow the definition of pleasure or happiness to be limited. It also prevents a single definition of what is considered pleasurable from being applied to a number of situations. For an act Utilitarian, they feel that when presented with a moral choice, they should judge it entirely independently on what will bring the greatest good in that specific situation. Additionally, when determining whether an action is right or wrong, it is the consequences of that particular act that are taken into account by an act utilitarian. However, there are several criticisms of act Utilitarianism, which limit its validity. Firstly, it deems almost any act that generates a certain amount of pleasure in a specific situation justifiable and secondly, it may seem inane to some to have to judge every single moral choice individually. Thirdly, it becomes difficult to justify leisure activities when the money with which we spend on them could benefit others by being donated to charity.

Opposing act is rule Utilitarianism, which is much more limited in its ethics. Rule centres solely on several common rules that must be abided in all situations in order to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. An example of this would be that it is generally considered that to kill someone would not heighten the amount of pleasure for the most number of people, therefore it is declared immoral to kill someone in all events, despite the circumstances. Although rule absolves the unfavourable qualities of Utilitarianism, it excludes the significant consequentialist values of Utilitarianism as an ethical strategy. To determine the morality of an action on set rules will not provoke the most happiness for the most number of people in the way that judging an action in its certain circumstances will.

Utilitarianism has much to be commended in that it provides a simplistic method of making ethical decisions. Utilitarianism as a whole, provides a flexible approach to moral decision making and its centring on pleasure is universally understood, as some degree of pleasure is recognisable to all and is appreciated as a highly substantial commodity to base a theory upon. However, it has substantial weakening flaws that lessen its status as an ethical theory.

The most notable flaw in Utilitarianism’s validity is that its judgements are based upon hypothetical consequences rather than actual ones. Similarly, it is difficult to judge the consequences of an action in terms of the near or distant future, as something that is determined pleasurable may be so in short-term circumstances, but long-term it may prove to be erroneous. In this example, which consequences are to be taken into account and the moral judgement to be based upon? It is thought of as reasonable to link morality with the quest for pleasure and eludence of pain, however it doesn’t support individual pursuits as they are subjected to the obligation of pleasure for the majority.

A problem found in the theory of Utilitarianism is trying to define pleasure, as what one person may find pleasurable another may not. The most evident form of this problem is to consider those who view sadism and masochism as pleasurable. Mill’s attempt to override this problem succeeded in some ways, by measuring pleasure qualitatively rather than quantitatively as Bentham had done, however, it caused several accompanying problems. Mill’s developed version of Utilitarianism with higher and lower order pleasures caused Utilitarianism to be thought of as elitist, which for example, could allow a minority of Mozart lovers to prevail over a majority who prefer Madonna.

From a Christian perspective, Utilitarianism has many flaws. Utilitarianism is based on the belief that humans seek out pleasure and attempt to elude pain, however, Biblical writers suggest that happiness shouldn’t be a motivating factor behind human actions. Furtherly, Utilitarianism doesn’t distinguish an act where a person makes some form of self-sacrifice for the greater good from an act where a more questionable action achieves the same result. As Jesus was the living example of self-sacrifice, which Christians try to follow, Christians criticise Utilitarianism for failing to acknowledge the importance of the idea of self-sacrifice.

A downfall of the theory is that it gives no credit to motivation. In judging the consequences of the action, if the consequences turn out wrong or immoral, the motives of the action are given no merit, even if good intentions were involved. For example, if a doctor attempts to save the lives of the victims of a car crash and they all die, according to Utilitarianism, the doctor would receive no recognition for his efforts. Additionally, there is religious relevance to this argument. Jesus is the example of how Christians are to lead their lives, and Jesus is claimed to have said that actions are irrelevant if they don’t have good intentions behind them. If universal happiness is achieved and the motives behind the action are considered impertinent, Christians could criticise this, as it could be used as an excuse to murder others.

A point that Bentham did not take into consideration was that community pleasure might not total up to the individual pleasure. The main example of this problem being the paying of tax, which for an individual is arduous yet for the community, there is many benefits. This factor causes light to be shone on the fact that the Hedonic Calculus overrides the pleasure of minorities. In the worst circumstance, it allows suffering of the minority for the sake of the pleasure of the majority, which although Utilitarianism condones, would be recognised as immoral by today’s standards.

Utilitarianism makes most actions permissible whether moral or not. An example pointed out by Alasdair Macintyre was that of the Holocaust being justifiable. He argued that because the majority of Germany was anti-Semitic, it could have be seen as morally correct to exterminate the Jews according to Utilitarianism because the majority were gaining pleasure. Another problem is that the theory involves no emotion, proving it to be a cold, rational theory that ignores the innate duty in humans to help those whom we love over those who may be the most beneficial to others, such as a heart surgeon. Utilitarianism also fails to acknowledge that in some circumstances pain is good for us. An example of this may be of a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy, which has extremely painful effects, but may result in saving their life. Due to the fact that pain can in some circumstances be good for us, one of the establishing points of the theory has been discredited, and therefore undermines the theory as a whole.

In conclusion, Utilitarianism has many benefits for the majority due to its key principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ is ensured when making an ethical decision and on the whole, is beneficial in its simplistic method of making a moral choice. However, there are several undermining factors of the policy, which in collectively weaken its argument. Although Bentham’s policy of seeking the greatest amount of pleasure for the most number of people is ethically correct, it cannot be applied to every situation, and so Utilitarianism’s downfall lies in its attempt to provide a solution for the majority in every circumstance, when in some predicaments the minority may be in the right.

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