Explain Utilitarianism

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Explain Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a teleological theory of ethics. The theory began with Jeremy Bentham as a way of working out how good or bad the consequence of an action would be. Bentham was concerned with social and legal reform (the conditions in which people lived and worked were appalling), wanting to develop an ethical theory that established whether something was good or bad according to its benefit for the majority of people.  In ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ (1789) he establishes this, calling it the principle of utility. Here, Utility means the usefulness of the results of actions, which is what gives utilitarianism its name, as the latin root word ‘utilis’ means useful. The principle of utility is often expressed as ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’. Bentham defined ‘good’ in terms of pleasure or happiness. An act is right or wrong according to the good or bad consequences. That which is good is that which equals the greatest sum of pleasure and the least sum of pain. Bentham said ‘An act is right if it delivers more pleasure than pain”. Since it focuses on the greatest number, the theory is quantitative. Interestingly, it was David Hume (1711-76) who first introduced the concept of utility into ethics, in his essay ‘Why Utility Pleases’, arguing actions are good if they are useful to society.

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The idea that ‘good’ is defined in terms of pleasure and happiness makes utilitarianism a hedonistic theory. ‘Hedone’ is Greek for pleasure. To help us choose the good thing to do and calculate the possible consequences o an action, Bentham provided the Hedonic (or felicific) calculus. The amounts of pleasure and pain are measured according to seven criteria: intensity, duration, certainty, fecundity, remoteness (how near/far), richness (will it lead to further pleasures?) and purity (how free from pain?). Whatever is good or bad can be measured in a quantitative way. Bringing about the greatest pleasure is more important then abiding ...

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