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What are the Main Features of Utilitarianism as an Ethical Theory

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In this essay I plan to explain the main features of utilitarianism, and the criticisms that have been made against it. I will also examine some philosopher’s opinions on utilitarianism. Utilitarianism comes in many different forms, the forms that I plan to concentrate on are; act and rule utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism come in two forms itself; strong and weak utilitarianism. The first thing I will do is explain what is commonly known by utilitarianism, this is an ethical theory by which actions are judged according to their anticipated consequences. One well known phrase that explains the basic form of utilitarianism is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. This means that an action is to be considered as good or right if more people are positively affected than are negatively affected. This is a teleological and a priori theory, this meaning that it uses the consequences of an action to tell whether it is right or wrong, and that it does not depend on experience but a presupposition.

Two philosophers who are widely acclaimed as the founders of utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham’s utilitarian views were quantitative, he suggested that happiness should be measured in terms of; its duration, its intensity, how near, immediate and certain it is and how free it is from pain and whether or not it is likely to lead on to further pleasure. Therefore each action is either good or bad according to its predicted results, in generating the most happiness for the maximum number of people, “By utility is meant that property of an object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or happiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual”1 Bentham also believed that acting in accordance with this principle would in itself bring about an individuals greatest happiness.

However there are some criticisms of Bentham’s beliefs. Firstly, the theory is based on the predicted results of an action, if some one wrongly predicted the results of an action then that could possibly lead to pain, evil or unhappiness (or anything else that comes to the same thing) to the majority of the people it affects. The four ways, in which Bentham measures pleasure would be very difficult to predict before carrying out an action, therefore making it almost impossible to successfully put this theory into practice. Bentham believed that using this theory would in itself bring about an individuals greatest happiness, however to successfully use this theory an individual would have to spend a lot of time predicting the results of every action they plan on doing to see whether they should carry it out or not, this would not give pleasure or happiness to the person concerned. This also means that in practice the theory would not be viable.

Mill agreed with Bentham in believing in the principle of utility, however disagreed with his way of assessing pleasure, he believed it should be done by the quality of the pleasure as well as the quantity, “It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”2 “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”3Mill believed in what we call ‘act’ utilitarianism, this means that each individual act must sum up the consequences that promote the greatest good.

Bentham believed in what we call ‘rule’ utilitarianism, this is where rules are framed that bring about the greatest happiness. There are two different forms of this they are weak and strong rule; weak rule means that these rules can be overridden if one act would bring about the greatest happiness over the rule. Strong rule means that because these rules have been framed to bring about the greatest happiness they should not be broken. Mill knowingly or not believed in weak rule utilitarianism, I know this because he gives two examples of when the rules can be broken, he says that someone should not give information to another person who is likely to use it to further evil purpose, and one should with hold information from someone who is ill, for fear of causing them harm.

So far I have considered Bentham and Mill, who believed in ‘act’ and ‘rule’ utilitarianism. There is however another from that can be termed ‘preference’ utilitarianism, this was argued for by R M Hare his book ‘The Language of Morals’ In this the utilitarian assessment of a situation takes into consideration the preferences of those individuals involved, except where those preferences come into direct conflict with the preferences of others. So the right thing to do in any situation is to maximise the satisfaction of the preferences of all those involved. This gets around the idea of using utilitarianism to impose one idea of happiness on others who may have a very different one.

The question ‘What is good?’ arises often when considering utilitarianism, the classic answer to this according to Mill is: ‘The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being desirable as means to an end.’ The idea that happiness is the ultimate good and unhappiness the ultimate evil is known as hedonism. Hedonism has always been an attractive theory because it is based on the idea that actions are good or bad on the way they make us feel. However, there are flaws in this; such as the fact that it misunderstands happiness, happiness is a response we have to actions, this is very different to deciding what to do to make us happy, and then deliberately doing so, making it merely a means to an end. There are very few contemporary philosophers who consider themselves as hedonists, however those sympathetic to utilitarianism have tried to formulate their own views without adopting a hedonistic account of what are good and evil.

G. E. Moore tried to compile a short list of those things that should, in his opinion, be regarded as good themselves. “It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history are full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely, to the attempt to answer questions, without firstly discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer.”4 Moore thought that ‘goodness’ is indefinable, and if you try to define ‘good’ then you have to use another term such as ‘right’. Other philosophers that have tried to bypass how many things are good in themselves have argued that right actions are the ones that have the best results, however this is measured. This can be referred to as ‘ideal utilitarianism’, which accepts general principles such as ‘thou shall not kill’, arguing that these principles have themselves been based on utilitarian grounds. Others have thought of something else known as ‘preference utilitarianism’ arguing that we should act so as to maximize the satisfaction of peoples preferences, and the preferences of person concerned should be taken into account, thus allowing people to say what for them constitutes pleasure or pain for them.

A philosopher called Henry Sidgwick had an opinion on utilitarianism and this is; “Here I wish only to point out that, if the duty of aiming at the general happiness is thus taken to include all other duties, as subordinate applications of it, we seem to be again led to the notion of Happiness as an ultimate end categorically prescribed, only it is now General Happiness and not the private happiness of any individual. And this is the view that I myself take of the Utilitarian principle.”5 By this Sidgwick is saying that all of the lesser duties together make up the important duty and this is the overall happiness of everyone, and that this has been given to us by a God. This is Sidgwick’s interpretation of utilitarianism. Sidgwick is therefore a believer in the utilitarian principle.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote a book called Crime and Punishment, in this book the character Rasklnikov explains strong rule utilitarianism; “I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a hundred or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been duty bound … to eliminate the dozen or the hundred for the sake of making the discoveries known to the whole of humanity … But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood. That depends on the idea and its dimensions, of course.”6 This explains that Newton’s scientific findings have brought about a lot of happiness for thousands if not millions of people and that that is worth sacrificing other lives. This is because more people would gain pleasure than those suffering pain or other such like.

Now I am going to explain some Christian responses to utilitarianism; Mill thought he had incorporated the spirit of the golden rule (to treat others as we would want to be treated). However to treat others as you would want to be treated is definitely not to treat him or her as one of many. Utilitarians define justice as treating ‘similar cases similarly’ and Christian ethics means ‘treating similar cases dissimilarly’. Also Christian ethics are all about love and how this can form true communities, and being unselfish, whereas utilitarianism is just about consequences and what is good for the largest amount of people.

The above people all believed in utilitarianism, but some philosophers have not, and I will now explain their views. A good valid argument to utilitarianism comes from D. D. Raphael “… let us imagine that the happiness of the whole human race were to be immeasurably increased… but the condition is that one man, his life mysteriously prolonged, is to be kept involuntary in a state of continuous torture. According to the utilitarian criterion, which measures the rightness of an act by its results, it would seem that the argument is justified.”7This points out that justice is not taken into account in the utilitarian theory, because of one man unwillingly sacrificing himself to an unjust life the rest of the population’s lives are greatly improved. This is the problem with a theory that looks just at the consequences even though there are other factors that come into moral decisions. However this anti-utilitarian theory like many others is unrealistic, and as utilitarianism is designed as a guide for moral decision making in situations that we actually face it makes these examples irrelevant in my opinion. Even though they show that utilitarianism has unacceptable consequences. Anti-utilitarian arguments such as the one I have stated and explain below is much better in my opinion because it uses a situation that could easily occur in real life.

Justice is a factor that is not taken into account in utility, and this is shown above in Raphael’s example. Another factor that utilitarianism does not take into account is rights; it goes against the idea that people’s rights should not be ignored because of expected good results. Most people believe that everyone has the right of freedom of speech, religion, life and others, and utilitarianism does not take these into consideration. Backward-looking reasons, is also another criticism of utilitarianism, “Suppose you have promised a friend that you will teach her to play the guitar. When the time comes to go to help her, you do not want to do it – you would rather stay at home and watch television.

What should you do? Suppose you judge that the utility of enjoying TV slightly outweighs the inconvenience your friend. Appealing to the utilitarian standard, you conclude that it is right to stay at home.”8 This highlights the fact that what the utilitarian theory says is correct is generally seen by people who do not believe in the utility principle as not. This is because in this case if you promised then you have an obligation to carry out your promise. However if there was special circumstances then breaking the promise would be understandable, for example if a close friend or relative died or was seriously injured. Again, imagine the world to be full of sadists (people who gain pleasure from causing others pain) their pleasure would outweigh the pain of the sadists victims, and a weak rule utilitarian would see this as justified. Therefore a small gain in utility cannot overcome an obligation come about by a promise.

I conclude that utilitarianism as an ethical theory seems to be very good, however in practice seems seriously flawed. The basic principle of utility; ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ would lead people to think it a commonsensical theory. But this is not the case, as I have shown above it is in fact very complicated, and this is one of its problems. If it were to be used in practice it would take time to work out a specific actions consequences, and these may not be correct. I think that it has too many valid arguments against it to be considered as worth while ethical theory, and I do not think that it is just this theory but all teleological theories. This is because I do not think that you can just look at the consequences of actions to see whether they are right or not, but her things have to be taken into account as for example the past. This is one of the things that utilitarianism fails to. Therefore in my opinion utilitarianism like all other teleological theories is useless.


Ethics and Religion, Joe Jenkins

Ethical Theory, Mel Thompson

On Liberty and Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill



1 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 1789

2 J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism 1863

3 J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism 1863

4 G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica

5 Henry Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics book 1

6 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment 1866

7 D. D. Raphael, Moral Philosopher 1981

8 Ethics and religion, Joe Jenkins

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