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Utilitarianism is a moral theory created by Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) with his essay "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”. The principle of utility seeks to answer the question: “How do we define what is morally good/right?”. Bentham’s utilitarianism believes that the morally right outcome in any situation is the one which gives ‘the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people’. Thus the answer to what is morally right/wrong lies in the end result of a situation rather than the actions taken to achieve the outcome, and is therefore a teleological (or consequentialist) approach.

Bentham believed that all people wanted to be happy and so we are motivated by nature’s two sovereign masters; pleasure and pain. We, as humans, seek to gain immediate pleasure and avoid imminent pain. His belief was that any action which brings about the most amount of happiness and the least amount of pain is morally right. Bentham’s theory makes judgement regarding the majority in any situation rather than individuals.

Bentham stated that the possible consequences of different actions must be clearly measured, and as such he developed the ‘Hedonic Calculus’. This is a calculus designed to weigh up the potential pleasure or pain which may arise from moral actions; the action creating the most pleasure and least pain must therefore be the morally ‘right’ action to take. The Hedonic Calculus considers seven factors –

1 – The intensity of the pleasure or pain.

2 – The duration of the pleasure or pain.

3 – The certainty or uncertainty of the pleasure or pain.

4 – The chances of the same effects being repeated (whether it will bring about further happiness).

5 – The chances of the same effects not being repeated (purity).

6 - Whether it is close or remote.

7 – The number of people who will be affected by any pleasure or pain resulting from the action.

According to Bentham, an action which leads to the best consequences is the morally correct one to pursue. His approach, however, is not without its critics. This theory is quantitative (takes into consideration the amount of happiness generated) rather than qualitative (taking into account the quality of the happiness instead of simply the amount) and therefore allowed for an evil majority.

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) agreed with utilitarianism as a whole but disagreed with Bentham’s theory in parts. Mill rejected Bentham’s quantitative measure when evaluating pleasure and pain and replaced it with a qualitative one. He particularly stressed the different values of pleasure, distinguishing between mental and physical pleasures. Mill believed that pleasures of the mind were or greater value than pleasures of the body, poetry being more satisfying than food for example – “Poetry is better than a push pin” (J.S. Mill).

Mill also placed value on people’s actions when deciding if they are morally right or not; instead of merely looking at the end result Mill took into consideration the actions taken to achieve that outcome. For example, Mill’s utilitarianism theory could be seen as superior to Bentham’s when applied to a situation which involves a group of five sadists torturing one person. According to Bentham, the quantity of pleasure gained by the five sadists in comparison to the one tortured person would make the torturing morally right. However, Mill would argue that the actions of the sadists are so low in value that they are not justified. This helps to reduce the possibility of an evil majority.

Two further ways in which the theory of utilitarianism may be divided are between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

Rule utilitarianism focuses on general rules that everyone should follow to bring about the greatest happiness for the community. In this view the individual is seen as less important than the group as a while. When acting according to rule utilitarianism this theory takes priority over the immediate situation, and could therefore be seen to have traces of absolutism.

Bentham, however, favoured a more flexible form of utilitarianism, namely act utilitarianism. He maintained that, whenever possible, the principle of utility must be directly applied for each individual situation, with decisions taken according to the unique variables of each situation and not simply applying rule utilitarianism in every case. When following act utilitarianism the value of the consequences of a particular act count when determining whether the act is right, and the consequences of the situation are important. Act utilitarianism is flexible and applies to each individual situation, but some would say that rule utilitarianism is both more morally right and practical as it overcomes the difficulty of inconsistencies between individuals when deciding if a particular act is right and relies on one fair rule.

Utilitarianism has many strengths –

1 – It places more emphasis on the consequences of a person’s act than on the motive for that act. This could be seen as practical commonsense; only the result of an act is important and affects others, the motives are inconsequential.

2 – Each situation (in act utilitarianism) can be considered according to its own merits. This is a relativist approach and allows for individual morality to affect decisions.

3 – It encourages the principle of democracy; the majority rules and a larger number of people are made happy.

4 – Utilitarianism supports the view that human wellbeing is intrinsically good and actions should be judged according to effect on this wellbeing.

5 – The preaching of Jesus requires people to work for the wellbeing of others; utilitarianism fits well with this.

6 – This approach does not rely on controversial, unverifiable theological or metaphysical principles.

Although utilitarianism is seen by many as the most commonsense way of dealing with moral situations (for example our democracy works by the political party with the most number of votes being elected and therefore making the largest number of people happy) it is not without its critics. Many criticisms have been aimed at the utilitarian theory –

1 – It is not always possible to calculate the consequences of an action.

2 – Even if the consequences of an action result in good the motive with which the action is carried out should still be considered.

3 – The problem of special responsibility – certain people mean more to us than others and could affect our choice when making life or death decisions involving them.

4 – The problem of justice – just means treating people fairly, according to their individual needs and merits. The majority is not always ‘right’ and consideration should also be given to minority views.

5 – The question of whether pleasure really is the height of human contentment. Fletcher thinks love is and Kant thinks duty is. Religious believers may not always be motivated by pleasure, as is such in the case of people willing to endure suffering for a cause they strongly believe in.

6 – The theory of utilitarianism is too simplistic; it cannot solve every dilemma because every dilemma is unique.

7 – Act utilitarianism is impractical because it requires us to judge every situation individually and this can mean justifying virtually any act.

8 – Rule utilitarianism does not allow for exceptions and there is no guarantee that the minority views will be protected.

Utilitarianism has, however, proved popular and useful in the centuries since Bentham’s original formation and updated versions have been suggested by both Henry Sidgwick (who asks how we can properly distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures) and Peter Singer (who argues that our ethical decisions should benefit the best interests of those affected, rather than simply pleasure).