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Explain the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism

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Explain the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism Utilitarianism is a teleological, secular theory which is a form of hedonism. It is a product of the enlightenment and is rooted in man's deep desire to be happy. Although Bentham did not coin the term 'greatest good for the greatest number' (the most well known phrase associated with utilitarianism), he is usually credited with the development of the theory. He claimed that God is governed by two masters; pleasure and pain. He also devised the hedonic calculus, consisting of seven criteria, as a means of objectively quantifying pleasure over pain. James Rachels called this theory 'a survivor'. It appeals to anybody who is a decision-maker. He said until you are in a position of leadership, you can never understand how your decision affects others. The fact that the principle of utility can be applied universally, to any situation also works in favour of this ethical theory. It is also relatively straightforward, constantly weighing up happiness and consequences. The Principle encourages a democratic approach in decision-making which is also seen as an advantage. The majority's interest is always considered and a dangerous minority is not allowed to dominate. However, everyone's happiness is taken into consideration and for this reason it is observed that nobody's happiness is more important than anyone else's. ...read more.


Alistair MacIntyre further criticized Utilitarianism for assuming that most people are good. This is dangerous, as you can justify evil with it. Let us invisage this example; a woman is jogging through a park and comes across a gang of men who gang-rape her. Utilitarianism justifies their actions as the men's pleasure is far greater than the woman's and, as they are the majority, the woman's pain would not matter. Similarly the theory cannot be used to determine what is universally good. Under Bentham's theory it would be possible to justify acts of sadism or torture if the majority, no matter how perverse the pleasure, carried them out. Mill's qualitative principle does go some way to addressing this weakness, however. The theory has also been criticized for being too simplistic. W.D. Ross thought that 'single-factor theories', by their nature, are problematic. Robert Nozick exposed a flaw from this approach when he suggested a thought experiment to how 'pleasure' may not always be the most important thing. He asks us to choose between living satisfied in a fake world, and living unsatisfied in a real world. If one was to prefer the latter, then surely truth and not pleasure should be considered the priority. However, we cannot solve every dilemma by reference to one ethical theory because every dilemma is unique in some way. ...read more.


In principle the theory does appear to be practical, however, in reality it is debatable whether it would be a workable ethic. This is mainly due to the ignorance of individual rights, especially those of the minority. However, there is a compromise. This is the idea of a qualified Utilitarianism, which accepts the claims that every individual has certain rights, but believes once these rights have been respected, Utilitarian calculations ought to come into play. Thus ensuring individual and minority rights are protected. Tom Regan has suggested some (more-or-less) reasonable criteria for an ethical theory (see The Case For Animal Rights section 4.3), and against these we see that utilitarianism does very well indeed: It is consistent, it has ample scope (it covers all actions), and it is reasonably precise. I can say that in terms of the core values, utilitarianism is in complete agreement with my intuitions - in my experience, happiness and happiness alone is felt to be intrinsically good or worthwhile, and suffering alone is felt to be intrinsically bad. However, I am also in agreement with W.D Ross over the point that measuring something as complex as a moral judgement should not rely on just one, quite subjective, measure. Even if we further specify the type or quality of pleasure (higher and lower pleasure), as Mill did, we can never fully distinguish between types of pleasure and some pleasures involve both higher and lower aspects simultaneously. ...read more.

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