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What are the merits and draw backs of utilitarianism as a guide to moral conduct?

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Introduction

What are the merits and draw backs of utilitarianism as a guide to moral conduct? What is utilitarianism? "The greatest good of the greatest number". Simple. Or is it? In any real situation, there are many people involved; they will all be affected in different ways; there is no reason why the "greatest number" should receive the "greatest good". What is usually meant in practice by that slogan is something like the following procedure for choosing between two or more actions. 1. Look at the state of life after each action. Look in particular at the level of happiness of each person in the various situations. 2. Add up, somehow, those levels of happiness in each case. 3. Compare the results. The one, which leads to the maximum total happiness, is the (morally) right one. The thing to notice about this is that it actually involves a lot of quite separate principles. I think it is fair to say that they are all part of the idea of utilitarianism. Someone who accepts some of them but not others may reasonably be called a utilitarian, even if they would see the procedure above as a vague outline. ...read more.

Middle

For instance, suppose that I could, by putting my grandmother through tortures, relieve a large number of people from one minute's toothache. No matter how small the amount of suffering from which each person is lifted of, and no matter how great the amount I cause to my grandmother, if the number of people is large enough then the total amount of suffering in the world will be decreased in this manner. Therefore I ought to torture my grandmother. This seems to me, unacceptable. This I see as a major weakness in utilitarianism. Of course, there are ways round this problem. For instance, we could model happiness and misery with a number system, containing values higher and lower in the sense that no multiple of one was as big as the other. So, we can get around that particular problem. But, there are others, though I wouldn't claim any of them as an actual rejection of utilitarianism. I shall take the utilitarian principles I listed above, and describe some objections to them. * Actions, as such, have no moral value. What matters is their effect on the state of the world. ...read more.

Conclusion

Good grief! In practice, what the utilitarian recommends is entirely different. I should make guesses as to the likely effects of the actions I'm considering, estimate the ends levels of happiness, and do the best I can at adding them up in my head. Anything more is impossible, and in any case I can't be blamed for things I can't predict. I'd now like to suggest that there are merits to utilitarianism, despite its drawbacks. The first point is one I've made already: utilitarianism does a pretty good job of giving answers to ethical questions. Most of us are capable of guessing "what will happen if..." and imagining others' responses to situations. Also considering "the greatest good of the greatest number" can be an effective way of defeating prejudices and selfishness. This ethical harmony is, after all, quite close to such principles as "Do to others as you would have them do to you" and "Love your neighbour as yourself". Lastly, I think any theory of ethics has to acknowledge that happiness and suffering are in themselves good and bad. This is why utilitarianism does as well as it does. But clearly happiness and suffering, pain and pleasure, aren't the whole story. - 1 - Sam Granshaw ...read more.

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