What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism?

The utilitarian approach to deciding what the right thing to do is to try and make the most amounts of people happy. Both Bentham and Mill believed this, they were both hedonists, believing that the most important thing in life is to be happy. However their theories differed in the way they measured pleasure. Bentham measured happiness considering the quantity of pleasure whereas Mill measured it by the quality of happiness that would occur. The main weakness of utilitarianism is to do with the problem of consequences. When we use Bentham's theory we are unable to predict the future so as to see how our decisions will affect people later on.

There is no way of telling for sure what the consequences of our actions will be, we just do what we think is right at that specific time. An example of this is shown through one of Roald Dahl's stories, 'Genesis and Catastrophe'. A doctor saves both the mother and child in a very difficult birth. His concluding words were 'you'll be alright Mrs. Hitler. ' If the doctor was a utilitarian he would say he was doing the right thing because the most amount of people were made happy by both mother and child being alive, but the doctor couldn't see into the future to see what consequences this act would have.

He thought more people would be happy because he saved his life but as it turns out Hitler went on to make millions of people suffer, causing them a lot of unhappiness. So a utilitarian looking back on this would say that to save the baby was the wrong thing to do because of what he did in his life. The doctor could have never known because we can't see the future. Another weakness of the utilitarian theory is the problem of special responsibilities. You have a certain responsibility and duty to your family and the closest people around you. Generally you regard these people higher than say a complete stranger.

To explain this, an example could be that there is a bus crash. You can only get one person out of the bus and your mum is stuck on the bus but there is also a scientist who, in his mind, has the cure for cancer. Who would you pick out of the two people? This would prove a problem for a utilitarian because they have to consider how many people would be made happy by saving either their mum or the scientist. If they were to save the scientist then millions of people could be cured of cancer and this is generally what a utilitarian would choose but then you have let your own mother die.

You have a special responsibility to your mum as she is your family and she brought you up and you both love each other. So this is a dilemma that some utilitarian's may have to face. However there are strengths to the utilitarian theory and this can be seen in Mills improved version of it. He believed that there are different levels of pleasure. The higher pleasures are those of intellect, feelings and imagination, e. g. reading a book. The lower pleasures refer to pleasures mainly of the body e. g. sex. A recent example of this would be to use the case of the American soldiers torturing the Iraq prisoner.

In Bentham's theory, this act would have been seen as ok because the pleasure of the soldiers outweighed that of the prisoner, even though we can see that it is wrong. In Mills theory the soldiers pleasure does not justify their actions because it is of such a low value that it doesn't outweigh the extreme pain the prisoner goes through. Mill has been said to be a rule-utilitarian, meaning he thought there needs to be some general rules, not binding but guidelines which if need be, can be broken. They need to consider the consequences of an action in the long term, not just the here and now.

Whether an act is good or bad is determined by the results that follow the act. He believed it was the end not the means that count. An example of this could be if someone breaks the rule, 'never lie' in order to spare someone's feelings. This would create more hedons than telling the truth and hurting their feelings. The final strength of utilitarianism is that if everyone in the world applied this principle to their entire decision making, then the whole world would be as happy as it could possibly be. If everyone obeyed the rule 'don't murder' no one would be murdered and that would make the most amount of people happy.