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What are the Main Features of Utilitarianism as an Ethical Theory?

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Introduction

What are the Main Features of Utilitarianism as an Ethical Theory? Utilitarianism: 'A moral theory according to which an action is right only if it conforms to the principle of utility' (www.utilitarianism.com) Utilitarianism is a moral theory of usefulness, which comes from the Latin word 'utilis' meaning useful. It is primarily concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number and because of this, reflects the wants and desires of society. It is concerned with good outcomes not good intentions, as no action is intrinsically good. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory and in the 1960's, utilitarianism was the term commonly used for consequentialism, and that use of utilitarianism remains today, but many people now use the term utilitarianism to designate a kind of consequentialism. Because of this, the greatest good is relative to the situation in hand. To obtain the greatest good for the greatest number one has to judge each situation on its own merits. For example, if an expectant mother, her husband and her father are in a car crash then a utilitarian would try to save the expectant mother first as she is pregnant and therefore there are two lives that would be saved (this is the greatest number as far as the people in the car are concerned). The next person to save would be the husband as he is still young and has a child on the way and lastly the woman's father. ...read more.

Middle

Utilitarianism is quite a practical thing to use. Whether we know it or not, in reality we do actually make our decisions based on how much good they will bring. In a sense, we use a version of the hedonic calculus (albeit a less detailed version). Examine and Consider Criticisms which have been made Against Utilitarianism (10) The criticisms that have been made against utilitarianism are many especially with regards to the hedonic calculus. The hedonic calculus and its cost benefits formula are often asked if they are accurate in terms of predicting outcomes. Many have said the answer to this is no. If we take the case of the car crash with the expectant mother, her husband and her father, who would we chose first? Clearly in any normal circumstance the expectant mother but say later on we find out that the mother's father has just invented a cure for aids (which as it happens the expectant mother suffers from). Then who do we chose to save first? The point is that no outcome is for certain and that a lack of information can prevent us from producing the greatest good for the greatest number. The application of Bentham's hedonic calculus makes us appear cold, clinical and robotic in our decision making and therefore ignoring raw sentiment and emotion. Utilitarianism bases itself in predictability and because we cannot see into the future, we are unable to actually realise what the greatest good for the greatest number actually at the time or will be. ...read more.

Conclusion

Although utilitarianism preaches the greatest good for the greatest number, it does not state that the 'good' that comes from it should be dispersed on an equal basis. A classic example of this is global wealth and although we know that there are many people who are starving, a utilitarian may come to a decision that it causes more pain to the 'well-off' to share the resources equally amongst the world. From this we have to assume that a utilitarian would be prepared to let a minority starve. Utilitarianism assumes that we would approach each situation in a robotic way and that we calculate the goodness that may come from each situation mechanically. The reality is far from the cold, robotic form that utilitarianism assumes. In actual everyday life, we allow emotion to take over especially if a decision is a matter of 'life-or-death'. As humans, we are emotional and in no way robotic. This is shown by the fact that we act out of self-interest, which can work against utilitarianism. In conclusion, I feel that utilitarianism is a very cold and harsh approach to life. It disregards raw emotion, which is part of the human make-up. It implies that our own feelings should be disregarded and that the hedonic calculus should be used to 'total up the goodness that will come from our actions'. I feel that although sometimes we may use utilitarian approaches, it does not make it right to act as cold and hardened to the world as it does appear to. 1 ...read more.

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