• Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

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

Extracts from this document...


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.


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.


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.

The above preview is unformatted text

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level Practical Questions section.

Found what you're looking for?

  • Start learning 29% faster today
  • 150,000+ documents available
  • Just £6.99 a month

Not the one? Search for your essay title...
  • Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

See related essaysSee related essays

Related AS and A Level Practical Questions essays

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

    doing so, in theory, abandoning the utilitarianism criteria and in doing so are also using other ways of deciding. The next question that we have to ask ourselves is, 'Is happiness quantifiable'. Is it sensible to believe that actions can be changed into a mathematical formula that measures their respective

  2. Examine the key features of utilitarianism and its strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism

    Also, many countries run by means of democracy. Our political leaders are elected through the ballot box, the majority overriding the minority. This however does not automatically mean that they are the most suited people for the job. Utilitarianism allows people to contemplate the situation before making the decision.

  1. "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they ...

    Nor does it require that one embrace utilitarianism. One may reject utilitarianism precisely because one recognises obviously and intuitively that it is wrong to murder a cancer patient to save a heart patient. (The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law, 189) On a different front, it seems utilitarianism overlooked several problems that seem to be perched right in its very own backyard.

  2. Evaluate the claim that conscience is a reliable guide to ethical decision making.

    While the methodology of an acquired conscience differs, the basic premise - that conscience is developed during childhood, and is developed by largely universal experiences - remains the same. From this we could deduce, particularly from Piaget's view, that while conscience is not pre-ordained it is a natural extension of the human condition.

  1. The Ethical Debate Concerning Cloning.

    I feel, as many others do, that it makes no practical difference whether physicians and nurses put God or man at the center of their faith. Whether we believe with Protagoras that man is the measure of things, or with the Bible that God is, the virtues of compassion and fortitude can and do follow from both standpoints.

  2. Evil and Suffering

    Augustine based his theodicy on the teachings in Genesis, primarily believing that every God made organism is 'good'. He did not believe it an illusion like Mary Baker Eddy, but alike Aquinas, views it as a 'privatio boni'; a deprivation of good, originating from Adam's disobedience in the Garden of Eden.

  1. Utilitarianism. Identify the main problems of Utilitarianism. To what extent do these make Utilitarianism ...

    principle to determine when a given action was right or wrong.'5 This was called the Prinicple of Utility which means that the action is right if it provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number, for example, a set of traffic lights help the greatest number to keep them, and others out of harm's way.

  2. Identify the main problems of Utilitarianism. To what extent do these make Utilitarianism unacceptable? ...

    I feel it is not enough to simply rely on good motives because only the consequences of an action have a real affect on human wellbeing. Utilitarianism depends upon the weighing up of happiness and pain to produce the maximum happiness.

  • Over 160,000 pieces
    of student written work
  • Annotated by
    experienced teachers
  • Ideas and feedback to
    improve your own work