Give an account of the main characteristics of Utilitarian theory.
by erinruth99gmailcom (student)
Give an account of the main characteristics of Utilitarian theory. 
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory based upon the utility principle: the moral decision is the decision that brings, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” It is both teleological and consequentialist. Theories that are interested in ends are teleological, meaning the end does justify the means. You decide the rightness of an action by the end it produces. Stealing or lying is right if it leads to a better situation afterwards – the lie that saves a life; the theft that prevents a person from starving. Consequentialism means judging the rightness or wrongness of actions is based on our assessment of the consequences of our actions. This means we can only judge whether we have done good or bad after the event has taken place. In examining utilitarianism, a good place to start is the views of Bentham.
The English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham first formalised the ‘theory of utility’. Bentham argued that good equals the greatest amount of pleasure for the least amount of pain. Bentham’s form of utilitarianism is referred to as Act Utilitarianism. Each individual action is judged good (or bad) purely on the maximisation (or minimisation) of pleasure over pain. This is a quantitive theory as Bentham’s primary concern was with the amount of pleasure produced, not with rules or laws as they were of secondary importance. He used the ‘hedonic calculus’ to calculate the most pleasurable action. Using this system the following criteria are taken into account to decide what is right and what is wrong: the intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fecundity, purity and extent of the resulting happiness must be considered.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Bentham sought a moral theory that would benefit society. He was enormously concerned with the social conditions of his day and believed that good government would ensure the comfort and happiness of its citizens. Bentham's aim was to ensure that an action would be deemed good if it was useful in bringing about positive consequences in relation to the fundamental principle which underpinned his moral theory. The theory can be applied to large groups as well as individuals. He wrote, “if that party be the community in general, the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual." Bentham was an atheist, and therefore his theory has proven popular in the secular world because it does not draw upon divine guidance.
Moving on, another key figure is John Stuart Mill who proposed Rule Utilitarianism. This is a theory which takes in to account the results of obedience of certain rules of conduct. This idea was formulated because it was recognised that you need to have general principles to live by in order to secure the greater happiness of the majority in the long term. For example: telling a lie may produce happiness for the individual in the short term, but unless the principle of truthfulness is obeyed in society, they no one would be able to trust anyone, thus hampering the overall happiness of society. This idea was developed by Mill, he said that one should obey a rule if that rule will itself bring about more happiness within society. Mill gives two examples of situations where he considers that it would be right not to tell the truth: One should not give information to someone who is likely to use it to further an evil purpose and one should withhold bad news from someone who is dangerously ill, for fear of causing him or her harm.
Mill wanted to go beyond Bentham’s ideas. He argued that intellectual pleasures should be preferred to physical pleasures. Bentham was interested in quantity but Mill claimed that quality was just as important. Mill rejected the idea that pleasures were all of the same quality and believed some pleasures to be of a higher (or morally more desirable) quality than others, which were referred to as lower pleasures. He claimed “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” A criticism of this approach is that it is difficult to balance the good with the harm done, and it could lead to the unhappiness of minority groups. In answer to this question, Mill produced the harm principle – the only time the liberty of another person can be interfered with is to prevent harm to others.
Another form of utilitarianism is Preference Utilitarianism. This was developed by R.M. Hare in his book, The Language of Morals (1973). This view takes into account the preferences of those involved and the motives they have for acting in a particular way. The preferences of individuals are taken in to consideration except when they come in to direct conflict with the preferences of others. So the key is to do the thing that will be to the satisfaction of as many as possible – maximising the satisfaction of the preferences of all involved. Thus this idea allows you to get around the difficulty of imposing one idea of happiness on someone who might have a very different idea of happiness. This can be applied to euthanasia. In this situation, the preferences of both the patient and those that know them are considered. He wrote, “The right thing to do in any situation is to maximise the satisfaction of the preference of all those involved.” This is both democratic and practical.