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Utilitarianism. The Morality of Consequences. Utilitarian Ethics. We ought to perform actions which tend to produce the greatest overall happiness for the greatest number of people.

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The Morality of Consequences

utilitarian ethics
Utilitarian Ethics

We ought to perform actions which tend to produce the greatest overall happiness for the greatest number of people.

This simple statement is the basic core idea of utilitarianism and is also known as the Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP).

utilitarian origins
Utilitarian Origins
  • The principle of utility - or Utilitarianism - is a moral test for the rightness of actions, based on how much pleasure or  pain they produce. The most well-known (and developed) versions of it are found in the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). However, the 'principle of utility' can trace its origins back to Epicurus (341-270 BCE).
  • Utilitarianism is a Consequentialist theory of ethics. Consequentialist theories judge the rightness (or wrongness) of an action, by what occurs as a result of doing something.
utilitarian ideas
Utilitarian Ideas

Key terms

  • Hedonistic Utilitarianism: An action is good when it maximises the amount of pleasure, leading to the minimum amount of pain.
  • Act Utilitarianism: Thinking about how our specific actions might contribute to the welfare of others, or be detrimental to it.
  • Rule Utilitarianism: Only implementing rules (or laws), which will lead to the well-being of the majority of people.
  • Preference Utilitarianism: Thinking about how others would prefer us to act (i.e. they would not want to suffer because of something we do), even if they knew nothing about our actions, or experienced no ill-effects as a result of them.
basic ideals of utility theory
Basic Ideals Of Utility Theory
  • The purpose of morality is to make the world a better place.
  • Morality is about producing good consequences, not having good intentions
  • We should do whatever will bring the most benefit (i.e., the best outcome) to all of humanity.
the purpose of morality
The Purpose of Morality
  • Utilitarians have a very simple answer to the question of why morality exists at all:
    • The purpose of morality is to guide people’s actions in such a way as to produce a better world.
  • Consequently, the emphasis in utilitarianism is on consequences, not intentions.
leading utilitarians
Leading Utilitarians
  • Utilitarianism has two key figures:

Founding father: Jeremy Bentham

Most sophisticated advocate: John Stuart Mill

  • Each had a different view of how utilitarianism could produce good moral actions.
jeremy bentham 1748 1832
Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832
  • Bentham believed that we should try to increase the overall amount of pleasure in the world.
  • This is called “Hedonistic Utilitarianism”
  • Maximize the overall amount of pleasure
  • Minimize the overall amount of pain
  • “Hedonistic Calculus”
  • “Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” (Bentham J., Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)
outline of bentham s ideas
Outline of Bentham’s Ideas
  • Definition: The enjoyable feeling we experience when a state of deprivation is replaced by fulfillment.
  • Advantages
    • Easy to quantify
    • Short duration
    • Bodily
  • Criticisms
    • Came to be known as “the pig’s philosophy”
    • Ignores higher values
    • Could justify living on a pleasure machine
bentham s calculus of utility
Bentham’s Calculus of Utility
  • Bentham devised a way of calculating pain and pleasure 'units'. These would be measured according to seven criteria:
  • 1. The intensity of any pleasure or pain.
  • 2. The duration of any pleasure or pain.
  • 3. The certainty or uncertainty of any pleasure or pain.
  • 4. The remoteness of any pleasure or pain (or how much the person making the decision might be affected).
  • 5. The chances of the same effects being repeated (More pleasure or more pain?).
  • 6. The chances of the same effects not being repeated (No more pleasure or pain?).
  • 7. The number of people who will be affected by any pleasure or pain arising as a result of the act in question.
john stuart mill 1806 1873
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
  • Bentham’s godson
  • Believed that happiness, not pleasure, should be the standard of utility.
  • Mill: pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity
  • “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”
  • We are capable of better pleasures than pigs are
mills theory of utility
Mills Theory of Utility
  • Advantages
    • A higher standard, more specific to humans
    • About realization of goals
  • Disadvantages
    • More difficult to measure
    • Competing conceptions of happiness
act rule utilitarianism
Act & Rule Utilitarianism
  • Act utilitarianism
    • Looks at the consequences of each individual act and calculate utility each time the act is performed.
  • Rule utilitarianism
    • Looks at the consequences of having everyone follow a particular rule and calculates the overall utility of accepting or rejecting the rule.
an example do not copy
An Example…(Do Not Copy)
  • Imagine the following scenario. A prominent and much-loved leader has been rushed to the hospital, grievously wounded by an assassin’s bullet. He needs a heart and lung transplant immediately to survive. No suitable donors are available, but there is a homeless person in the emergency room who is being kept alive on a respirator, who probably has only a few days to live, and who is a perfect donor. Without the transplant, the leader will die; the homeless person will die in a few days anyway. Security at the hospital is very well controlled. The transplant team could hasten the death of the homeless person and carry out the transplant without the public ever knowing that they killed the homeless person for his organs. What should they do?
    • For rule utilitarians, this is an easy choice. No one could approve a general rule that lets hospitals kill patients for their organs when they are going to die anyway. The consequences of adopting such a general rule would be highly negative and would certainly undermine public trust in the medical establishment.
    • For act utilitarians, the situation is more complex. If secrecy were guaranteed, the overall consequences might be such that in this particular instance greater utility is produced by hastening the death of the homeless person and using his organs for the transplant.
moral critiques
Moral Critiques
  • Rule utilitarians claim:
    • In particular cases, act utilitarianism can justify disobeying important moral rules and violating individual rights.
    • Act utilitarianism also takes too much time to calculate in each and every case.
  • Act utilitarians respond:
    • Following a rule in a particular case when the overall utility demands that we violate the rule is just rule-worship. If the consequences demand it, we should violate the rule.
    • Furthermore, act utilitarians can follow rules-of-thumb (accumulated wisdom based on consequences in the past) most of the time and engage in individual calculation only when there is some pressing reason for doing so
criticisms of utilitarianism
Criticisms of Utilitarianism
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Intentions
  • Moral Luck
  • Who does the calculating?
  • Who is included?
  • What about the minority?