"Explain Bentham's Utilitarianism" and Act Utilitarianism has immoral consequences Discuss.
- Explain Bentham’s Utilitarianism:
Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy based on the utility, or usefulness of an action. This philosophy is rooted in hedonism, or seeking pleasure. Hedonism can be traced back to Ancient Greece, with philosophers like Aristotle writing about “eudaimonia” or happiness being the highest good. Some people would argue that hedonism is an egoist theory as it only considers the outcome for the individual, Thomas Hobbes thought that mankind was inherently selfish and that the only reason why we behave is because we have a “social contract” and understand that we must surrender our free will to the state in order to survive. Utilitarianists would agree that man is motivated by pleasure however Utilitarianism also considers what is best for society, as it focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number. They believe in a social contract but think instead it allows us to be free and get along with each other.
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory meaning that it is concerned with the outcome of the action rather than an intrinsic value of the action itself. This means it is relative and dependent on the situation. Joseph Fletcher was a philosopher who proposed situation ethics as a moral philosophy. Although this is similar in some ways to Utilitarianism as it focuses on what is the most loving (and therefore creates happiness) Situationists would not consider the consequences of the action as they believed that you must make decisions spontaneously. Both agreed that relativism is better than an absolutist theory such as Divine Command as it involves using reasoning to make a decision, and an act to be measured from how happy it makes a community of people. This makes Utilitarianism a useful moral philosophy for governments trying to decide what is best for its people, whereas Divine Command is based purely on the word of God, which may not always produce a good outcome, as Divine Command would state that you cannot steal in any circumstances, whereas Utilitarianism would argue that the pleasure it gives the thief (e.g feeding himself/his family) would outweigh the negative effect on the person stolen from.
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The most well-known proponent of Utilitarianism was Jeremy Bentham. He said that “mankind is under two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain” which means he believed that every action is based upon whether the action brings you pleasure or pain. He believed that what is moral is based upon creating the “greatest good for the greatest number.” He believed this was self-evident, as it was obvious that people will avoid pain if possible. Bentham believed that the good of something could be determined by using a hedonic calculus, or a mathematical way that would give you a quantitative result. He believed you have to consider the intensity, duration and purity of the action amongst other factors in the calculus. For example, if a government was trying to decide whether to go to war, they might consider how long the war will last, how many soldiers or civilians will die, and how much it will cost. The problem with this is that it can be impossible to predict the outcome of things, the war could have a positive impact, or it could cause huge unrest for decades to come, and it is incredibly hard to predict which one it will be.
Bentham’s Utilitarianism is known as Act Utilitarianism, which means it examines the utility of individual acts completely separate from each other. Some people think that this theory is too relative as it could allow for immoral acts to take place as long as they produced enough happiness. John Stuart Mill created the idea of Rule Utilitarianism to solve these problems. Jeremy Bentham thought that all pleasures were equal saying that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” Pushpin was a game played in pubs at the time, and so Bentham thinks that as long as it brings happiness it is as noble a pursuit as studying poetry. John Stuart Mill disagreed and referred to this idea as a “Swine Ethic” meaning that something could be justified because the majority of people did it, rather than the act itself being good.
- “Act Utilitarianism has immoral consequences” Discuss.
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, meaning it decides upon the morality of an action purely based on the outcome of that action. The hedonic calculus works out what is the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Bentham believed that this idea would bring about happiness, and believed that morality was based purely upon happiness. However some critics of the theory would disagree because the very basis of the theory states that the majority have power because it is their opinions that decide on morality. This may lead to tyranny of the majority leading to minority groups having their opinions ignored. Swift wrote a satirical essay called “A modest proposal” that advocated that the most useful way to deal with the problem of growing numbers of orphans and street children would be to kill and eat them. He uses the principle of utility to justify this, therefore criticising the immoral outcomes that could be resulted from Utilitarianism. He also criticises people “who regard the poor as commodities” and it could be argued that Bentham’s theory is dehumanising as it sees humans for only their value of what they can add to society, and considers them worthless if they do not contribute anything. Most Christians would disagree with this as they believe that all humans have an intrinsic value as it says in the bible that mankind was made in God’s image.
Because of this, many people would argue that Act Utiliarianism leads to human rights violations, and an often used argument for this is that the Nazi’s believed that by killing people they saw as “worthless to society” they were benefiting society as a whole. Some people would argue that Utilitarianism would lead to this happening again, however Bentham would suggest that Utilitarianism creates equality as all people are equal in their ability to be happy and experience pain, and because Utilitarianism uses the hedonic calculus, which does not discriminate based on gender, race, sexuality etc it automatically creates equality. The hedonic calculus would never suggest that you should murder 11 million people, as these are all instances of pain and so would be included in the hedonic calculus. It makes sense logically that killing this amount of people would never be considered moral by a Utilitarian. On the other hand, some would say that society has a duty to help minority groups and so they should not be treated the same as everybody else because the people who are privileged do not need the help. In Bentham’s utopian view of society, however, this would not be necessary as the inequality would not exist in the first place.
In conclusion, Act Utilitarianism provides the most moral outcome if used correctly. It allows us to take outcomes that reduce pain and consider them moral. However it is easy to see that Tyranny of the majority could come about using the calculus, as a small group of people could be negatively affected but because of their size this would not outweigh the good for the majority. Rule Utilitarianists like J.S Mill would argue that a rule-based morality would solve this problem, as it says that an action is good if it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. By not allowing exceptions to the rule it may prevent issues like the Tyranny of the majority, but like all absolutist theories, it could still lead to immoral acts due to the person who makes the decisions about the rules.