Goffs School Religious Studies

Topic 1 – Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism: ‘greatest happiness principle’

The ‘greatest happiness principle’, often associated with the quote, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is seen as the key idea of ‘utilitarianism’.   However, utilitarianism has been repeatedly adapted the theory can now be sub-divided into three key areas: ‘Act Utilitarianism’, ‘Rule Utilitarianism’ and ‘Preference Utilitarianism’.  Utilitarianism is an incredibly practical and popular ethical position, but it also has some serious flaws.

Act Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832)

The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham believed happiness could be defined as pleasure and the absence of pain. His rational mind led him to believe that the study of ethics could be undertaken in a practical and scientific manner. Importantly, he wanted to create a theory that allowed people to measure the possible consequences or outcomes of an action before deciding which action to take.

Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill detail.jpg

Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill (National Portrait Gallery via Wikicommons)

Bentham’s theories are important as they have not just been discussed by philosophers, but have influenced social reformers, political theorists, lawyers, prison reformers, banking reformers, business leaders and the provision and access to higher education institutions, as well as having a massive impact on the subject of philosophy itself. Bentham also helped found University College London (UCL).

The Principle of Utility

Bentham believed the key to being ethical was the application of the ‘the principle of utility’, which  states that moral actions are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they produce unhappiness or pain. Therefore, utilitarianism is a teleological principle as it considers the outcomes of actions, not necessarily the actions themselves.

The Hedonic Calculus

Bentham also wanted a theory that considered all people (the ‘greatest number’) when making laws or moral decisions.  He came up with the idea of a ‘hedonic calculus’ that could measure different amounts of pleasure. The calculus used seven aspects of pleasure that Bentham thought could be measured. If an action has high amounts of these seven things, then it should be followed. The hedonic calculus included:

  • Remoteness – how near it is
  • Purity – how free from pain it is
  • Richness – to what extent it will lead to other pleasures
  • Intensity – how powerful it is
  • Certainty – how likely it is to result
  • Extent – how many people it affects
  • Duration – how long it lasts

Some Utilitarian philosophers would argue that there are situations when you can use the hedonic calculus as a method of determining the overall effects of an ethical decision or action. For example, these could include choosing how to spend National Lottery money (a playground used by 1,000 children or a stair-lift for 10), or in deciding how to prioritise health care spending, including what procedures should be carried out in a hospital (4 X-ray units or 1 machine used for laser eye surgery).

A good example of Act Utilitarianism is this: when faced with a road traffic accident a paramedic will treat a pregnant woman first.  This is because in any given situation, the pregnant woman and her unborn child have a greater potential for future happiness than any individual involved in the crash. Not only are two people treated, but the unborn child may live a longer life than the other casualties. This is both quantity focused and a teleological approach.

Criticisms of Act Utilitarianism

However, critics of utilitarianism say that many of our moral decisions do not have predictable or measurable outcomes and are far too complex for a simple method of calculating pleasure.  Moreover, there is disagreement amongst many philosophers over what counts as pleasure and how to define it. Others question whether we can equate pleasure and pain; what is pleasurable to some may be painful to others, such as allowing racist comedians their own TV shows, which may be popular to a lot of viewers, but highly offensive to a minority.

Some philosophers would argue that it is wrong to judge moral actions by outcomes. Critics would take issue with utilitarianism’s teleological approach and argue that a deontological approach is better. For example, a criminal who gives a lot of their ill-gotten gains to charities or even opens a homeless shelter may be seen as ‘good’ under Act Utilitarianism, but does this make the criminals original actions ‘good’?  Utilitarianism could even be used to defend the torture of prisoners if it made the general public feel that justice is served; the theory could even support the exploitation and abuse of minority groups if it pleases the ruling majority.

Rule Utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill – 1806-73)

Unlike Act Utilitarianism, where people base their decision on the outcome of an actual action, Mill looks at the bigger and longer picture and adds some general principles (or rules) to the theory.  Having rules can, therefore, protect humans from short term decisions. For example, human rights law protects a terrorist from torture. An Act utilitarian may argue that torture is OK as we can get immediate information and save lives. However, Rule Utilitarianism would argue that upholding human rights gives us all protection in the long run. These rights are far more important and protect far more people over many, many years than the immediate threat of a terrorist attack. Therefore, we should not break our rules on human rights.

John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870.jpg

London Stereoscopic Company – Hulton Archive (Public Domain)

Importantly, some actions will be ruled out as unacceptable because rules are aimed at safeguarding the population as a whole. Therefore, the principle of utility is applied to a rule, so the rule will hold if following it leads to greater happiness over many years.  This means that in an individual case, even though an injustice might bring about greater happiness, if it goes against the general principle that injustice tends to lead to misery and a reduction in happiness, it is deemed wrong. Thus, Rule Utilitarianism is very teleological.

Higher-order Pleasures

Unlike Bentham, John Stuart Mill also believed that quality was more important than quantity when it came to calculating pleasure.  Mill argued that ‘higher order pleasures’ (or pleasures of the mind) are far superior to the gratification of the body’s desires, which he termed ‘lower order pleasures’.  Mill famously said:

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’

Critics of Mill, however, have argued that how do you decide whether listening to classical music is a higher order pleasure than listening to hip-hop or reading poetry as opposed to watching the latest action film?

The theory seeks to reduce everything to a consideration of happiness, when moral decisions are actually a lot more complicated than that.   It also still allows for great injustices to be carried out just as long as the greatest good is served.   The theory went on to receive further modifications from Philosophers such as Peter Singer (discussed below).

Preference Utilitarianism – (Peter Singer)

Utilitarianism holds the basic assumption that we desire pleasure and seek to avoid pain, but some people see this as flawed as some people do not seek pleasure or seek pleasure in things others find pleasurable. For example, some tribes practice customs, such lip piercing, that their governments find uncivilised, unnecessary and primitive. However, if no harm comes to others, should that group be allowed to pursue those customs? Moreover, people who have sinned or broken the law feel the need to be punished – they may want to suffer or be punished in some way in order to repent or acknowledge their guilt.  Therefore, some modern utilitarian philosophers look at the degree to which an action fulfils the preferences of others without harming the lives of the majority.  This avoids making any judgement about the suitability of the desires of others or the ‘level’ of their happiness.


Photo Credit: Bbsrock via Wikicommons

The theory, however, is controversial, as it assumes some basis by which a conflict between A’s preferences or interests and B’s preferences can be resolved (for example, by weighting them mathematically). But, for example, surely some people would find ‘Satanic Music’ threatening and Christians may not accept that a ‘Satanic Music’ festival, which they do not have to attend, should happen in a venue near them. Do you let the festival go ahead if the majority of local residents are opposed – even if they will not really be affected by it?

In a similar vein, Peter Singer, a major proponent of preference utilitarianism, has been criticised for giving priority to the views of beings capable of holding preferences (being able to actively contemplate the future and its interaction with the present) over those solely concerned with their immediate situation, a group that includes many animals and young children. Hence, in cases of abortion, the views of the parent (however selfish or not) are prioritised over those of the foetus, without recourse to any (perceived) rights (here, the “right to life”). There are, he writes in regard to killing in general, times when “the preference of the victim could sometimes be outweighed by the preferences of others”. Singer does, however, still place a high value on the life of rational beings, since killing them does not infringe upon just one of their preferences, but “a wide range of the most central and significant preferences a being can have”.

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