What are the main features of utilitarianism as an ethical theory (10) Examine and consider criticisms which have been made against utilitarianism (10) 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.