Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that derives from the 18th century during the enlightenment period. It focuses on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, and therefore aims to provide maximum pleasure to the maximum number of people/animals. It is teleological, which comes from the Greek word “telos” meaning “ends”, and thus it is to do with the consequences of our actions, rather than the act itself.
Utilitarianism is also relative, meaning there are no universal rules and each decision depends on the situation.The father of utilitarianism is considered to be Jeremy Bentham, who believed the pleasure should be measured quantitively. For example, if ten people wanted to eat chocolate, and one person wanted to read Shakespeare, Bentham would say that everyone should eat chocolate. Another philosopher, John Stuart Mill, disagreed. He thought that pleasure should be measure qualitively. So in the above example, Mill would say that everyone should read Shakespeare, because he considered it more intellectual, and therefore the better quality pleasure. He said: “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied”. This quote emphasises his belief that there are higher forms of pleasure; Socrates would see pleasure as seeking wisdom, while a fool may see pleasure as watching television.
Bentham thought that he could empirically and scientifically measure pleasure through a set of seven criteria. One of these criteria was duration – who long would the pleasure last? Another is certainty – how certain is it that you will actually gain pleasure? Bentham said that the calculus was universal and could be used in all situations. For example, if a woman was due to go on a skiing trip but found she was pregnant, she could go through the seven criteria to work whether to go on the skiing trip or get an abortion. She would see that the pleasure of the skiing trip would only last a few weeks, while the pleasure of having and bringing up a child would last a lifetime, and that is wasn’t certain she would actually gain pleasure from the skiing trip, sue to possible injuries.Utilitarianism considers the majority when making decisions; this is positive as it ensures dangerous minorities (such as Hitler and the BMP) are not allowed to rule. As the majority has so many people with the same views, it is likely that this would be the right decision – it is only naturally to go with the greater number of people.
This principle of utilitarianism can be seen in the government: in elections, it is the person with the most number of votes who is elected.Our government also highlights another strength of utilitarianism – everyone is considered equal (it is a democratic and egalitarian way of making decisions). This means that if the Queen voted in an election, her vote would have no more impact on the final decision than anyone else’s. In addition, utilitarianism ensures that our emotions do not take over; emotions must be pushed aside in order to make a fair and equal judgement.
As humans, we automatically consider the outcome of our actions. This is a vital aspect of utilitarianism, as the theory is concerned with consequences. For example, if a person was to steal, they would naturally consider the possible end result, therefore weighing up with the action should be done.However, although utilitarianism considers the majority, it does not protect minorities. This means that ordering to the theory, if five people were bullying a single person, the five bullies should continue, because the greater number (the majority) are gaining the greatest pleasure. This poses a problem for utilitarianism, as bullying is clearly wrong.While everyone is considered equal, it is a natural part of being human to have emotions, and it is hard not to let these take over and encourage us to make a selfish decision. For example, if there was a burning building containing a doctor with the cure for cancer, a pregnant woman and your mother, most people would save their mum, even though the doctor could cure thousands of people.
In reality, when faced with a situation such as this, many people would find it extremely difficult to treat the three people as equal and save the person who benefits the greatest number.Although we naturally consider the outcome of our actions, we cannot predict the consequences accurately. Therefore, when we think we may carrying an act with good consequences (such as cooking dinner for the family), it may actually have unexpected bad consequences (eg. burning the kitchen down).
This means that utilitarianism may result in people not focusing on possible bad consequences.G. E. Moore had another criticism – he said the utilitarianism committed the naturalistic fallacy. That is, not all pleasures are good. Utilitarian does not distinguish between good and bad pleasures.
An example of this is taking hard drugs: to some people it may cause pleasure, but it is clearly not good.Despite these weaknesses, utilitarianism has proved to be very successful in the centuries since it first began. It has brought about many positive changes to society, such as animal rights, welfarism and equal opportunities for women. It is still actively used today, for example in our government, in which everyone is considered equal and we go with the majority. Many of us are utilitarians in many situations, and the theory has proved to be a simple and practical way of making decisions.