Utilitarianism Theory Essay
Utilitarianism is an ethical movement that began in 18th century. It dictates that the best course of action is the one that benefits majority. Here, you will discover an essay about utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism theory argues that the consequence of an action determines whether that particular action is morally right or wrong. Philosophers behind this theory include Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, R.M. Hare and Peter Singer. All these philosophers evaluate morality of actions depending on overall happiness or well-being. Thus, they see utilitarianism as a consequentialist ethic.
Consequentialist ethics holds that in determining whether an act, policy, rule or motive is morally right, we should check whether it has good consequences for all affected persons. Rather than asking if an action has good consequences for a person, we should just inquire whether that action adds to the person’s happiness.
Therefore, utilitarianism is an ethical theory that centers on happiness, not just the happiness of one person, but happiness of many people. Thus, the greatest happiness principle is synonymous with the principle of utility. The principle of greatest happiness states that a person should do things that will have the most happiness for all involved persons.
Critics of utilitarian ethics argue that because utilitarianism emphasizes on results, utilitarian theorists should agree that the theory of ethical relativism solves the problem of relativism. These critics claim that since utilitarian theorists argue that morality of an action depends on what the product of the action will take to all affected persons, then almost every action is moral. That is to say, utilitarianism is a consequentialistic ethic and thus, we cannot know whether an action is immoral until we see its bad consequences.
Given that, utilitarian ethics in some ways holds morality of an action hostage to the result, morality of the action appears relative. However, we refute ethical relativism since utilitarian ethics is a type of universalism, given its grounds in trust in universal human nature. Utilitarian theorists say that all people have altruistic and egoistic elements, and all people seek to evade pain and augment pleasure. Then, instead of ethical relativism, they support a liberal ethics that acknowledges there are universal principles and values.
The utilitarian perspective that ethics is more inclined to our feelings and not our rationality may seem to give evidence that utilitarianism is a type of relativism. Obviously, people have different outlooks about different matters. However, description of ethics may not always be from this perspective. Think about a cruel act such as premeditated murder.
How comes that this act immoral? Is it due to societal, divine, or natural laws? The truth is that human beings cannot make the moral judgment that premeditated murder is immoral until they experience negative sentiments about such acts. If there are human beings who do not get negative sentiments after reflecting on the idea of premeditated murder, or other monstrous acts, it is because those persons have something wrong with them and thus, cannot feel others pain.
Desensitization is the contemporary psychological word that describes why some people may not have feeling for the pain of others. People become desensitized making them not feel others pain. This psychological thought matches perfectly well with the utilitarian idea of sentience. However, human nature is universal and a universal ethics rests upon nothing more than human sentiments.
At the center of the utilitarian argument that shifts from the concern we physically have for our personal feelings of pain and pleasure, to others feelings of pain and pleasure, is the belief that this is the nature of human beings. When we hear about calamities happening to others, we may find ourselves flinching or grimacing. However, to go from a claim about our human nature to a moral claim that we ought to do this, and it is correct that we do this, and wrong when we fail to do this, includes an extra step in the argument.
The crucial step is to ask ourselves whether there is actually a difference between our pains and joys and other peoples’ pains and joys. This, for instance, is a problem to any racist. If dissimilar races experience equal pleasures and pains, then how come one race sees itself as superior to another race? If there is actually no difference between our pains and pleasures with others pains and pleasures, then we ought to, just due to consistency, view their suffering as just as significant as ours.
This is the heart of the justification of the theory of utility; we should do what will have the best outcomes for all persons involved, not only for ourselves, since there actually is no significant difference involving our welfare and other people’s welfare.
It is clear that equality is a main concept involved in this reasoning. A different way to portray the central utilitarian concept is just to say humans are equal; your pain or happiness is equal to another person’s anguish or happiness. However, another person’s happiness, well-being, suffering, pleasure and pain are not more crucial than yours. Hence, considering ethics along utilitarian line takes us from egoism through altruism to equality.
Other critics of utilitarianism argue that it is difficult and impossible to apply its principles. Those that hold that it is difficult to apply utilitarian principles argue that calculating the outcomes for all persons is impractical due to uncertainty and the big number involved. The truth, however, is that utilitarianism offers a clear way of determining whether an action is moral or not, and this does not involve calculations.
As mentioned earlier, a morally right action should have pleasurable consequences. Therefore, a person who says that it is difficult to apply this theory should support his/her claims with examples of actions that produce pleasurable outcomes, but are wrong. Therefore, the argument that it is difficult to calculate what is right does not hold any water, since it has no harm to the principle of utility. Rather, this is a problem of the human condition.
Other critics that oppose the application of utilitarian principles argue that it is not possible to gauge or quantify happiness and there is no defined method of weighing happiness against suffering. However, the truth is that happiness is measurable and comparable through words like happier and happiest. If it were not measurable, then these words would have little meaning.
In conclusion, the theory of utilitarianism is sound, logical and consistent. Utilitarian ethics follow the law of greatest happiness. According to this law, human beings seek to decrease suffering and maximize happiness. Hence, an action that is correct morally must lead to the greatest possible pleasure. This also implies that actions that cause pain on human beings are morally wrong. As seen in the arguments above, this theory is beyond reproach, as it caters for all possible objections.
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Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill
Who is john stuart mill.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, as well as a political economist and a prominant politician. Born in London to a family of intellectuals, Mill was educated by his father, James Mill, who was a philosopher and economist himself. He was a child prodigy, learning Greek at age three and Latin at age eight before delving into advanced philosophical works as a teenager.
Mill's father was a close friend and follower of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham , the founder of utilitarianism , a moral theory that emphasizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people as the guiding principle for ethical behavior. The education he gave John Stuart Mill aimed to mold him into a utilitarian philosopher, and Mill's most famous work, Utilitarianism (published in 1861), is a detailed explanation and defense of the theory against a range of objections. This digital essay covers Chapter 2 of that work.
As a political reformer (and Member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868), Mill advocated for economic and social policies that would promote equality and social welfare. He was a staunch advocate for women's rights, publishing "The Subjection of Women", a groundbreaking work that argued for equal social status between women and men. Mill was only the second Member of Parliament to advocate for women's suffrage, and wrote in support of the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Key Principle Utilitarianism: The Basics
The greatest happiness principle.
Here is how Mill states the defining principle of utilitarianism:
The doctrine that the basis of morals is utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By 'happiness' is meant pleasure and the absence of pain; by 'unhappiness' is meant pain and the lack of pleasure.
Let's break this down. In this passage, Mill says that morality is all about promoting happiness (which he also calls "utility"). The more happiness an action produces, the better it is, morally speaking; and the more unhappiness an action produces, the worse it is. According to utilitarianism, then, we should strive to maximize utility in the world, producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
Mill also equates happiness with "pleasure and the absence of pain" and unhappiness with "pain and the lack of pleasure". This view of the nature of happiness is known as hedonism .
The Importance of Sentience
The capacity to experience pleasure and pain is known as sentience . Human beings are sentient, and so are many animals. Utilitarians like Mill hold that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on how the action affects all sentient beings -- not just humans. In other words, in applying the Greatest Happiness Principle, we must factor in the pleasure or pain of sentient animals as well as humans.
This doesn't mean all sentient life is completely equal. Sentience comes in degrees: different creatures -- and even different individuals -- can have a greater or lesser capacity to experience pain or pleasure. For example, a toad arguably cannot experience as wide a variety of pleasures and pains as a human being -- such as the pleasure of humor or the pain of heartbreak -- or experience them with as much intensity as humans sometimes do. Similarly, someone who is under heavy sedation has less of a capacity for pleasure and pain than you do right now (we hope!).
The Felicific Calculus
For utilitarians, determining the right thing to do is a matter of adding up the utility an action is likely to produce for the sentient creatures affected. For instance, suppose Jeffrey wants to go on vacation, but nobody is available to feed his cat, Whiskers. Mill would advise Jeffrey to consider whether the pleasure he would get from the vacation outweighs the pain Whiskers would experience from going without food and water.
As this illustrates, utilitarians try their best to approach moral decisions mathematically. Jeremy Bentham called this the "Felicific Calculus".
Pleasure and the Good Life
What view of the good life does utilitarianism imply? Here's what Mill says:
Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things that are desirable as ends, and everything that is at all desirable is so either for the pleasure inherent in it or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.
We can contrast this with Aristotle's view that the ultimate goal of human life is eudaimonia , the state of living in accordance with one's true nature as a rational being. For Aristotle, this involves cultivating moral and intellectual virtue in oneself. For a utilitarian like Mill, virtue is not necessarily a requirement for a good life. Anyone who is effective in promoting pleasure and preventing pain is living a good life, regardless of their personal virtue.
Which of these views do you find more plausible? Is Aristotle right in thinking that a good life requires a virtuous character? Or is pleasure ultimately the only thing that really matters, as Mill believes? When you reflect on your own goals and desires, do all of them seem to fit what Mill says above -- or do you find any that seem totally unrelated to pleasure (your own or others')?
Key Principle Higher and Lower Pleasures
Are all pleasurable activities equal? For example, does utilitarianism imply that someone who enjoys binge-watching professional wrestling all day is spending their time just as well as someone who enjoys reading classic novels? Perhaps surprisingly, Mill doesn't think so. In this section, Mill introduces his view that some pleasures are superior to others:
When utilitarian writers have said that mental pleasures are better than bodily ones they have mainly based this on mental pleasures being more permanent, safer, less costly and so on—i.e. from their circumstantial advantages rather than from their intrinsic nature. But they could, quite consistently with their basic principle, have taken another route: it is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others . In estimating the value of anything else, we take into account quality as well as quantity; it would be absurd if the value of pleasures were supposed to depend on quantity alone.
"What do you mean by 'difference of quality in pleasures'? What, according to you, makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, if not its being greater in amount?" There is only one possible answer to this. Pleasure P1 is more desirable than pleasure P2 if: all or almost all people who have had experience of both give a decided preference to P1, irrespective of any feeling that they ought to prefer it. If those who are competently acquainted with both these pleasures place P1 so far above P2 that they prefer it even when they know that a greater amount of discontent will come with it, and wouldn’t give it up in exchange for any quantity of P2 that they are capable of having, we are justified in ascribing to P1 a superiority in quality that so greatly outweighs quantity as to make quantity comparatively negligible.
Consider what a virtue ethicist like Aristotle would think about this. Do you think Aristotle would agree with Mill that some pleasures are more valuable than others? If so, would their reasons be the same?
Socrates and the Fool
In the following paragraphs, Mill continues developing his doctrine of higher and lower pleasures. He explains the sense in which he thinks a life characterized by the cultivation and use of "the higher faculties" (for example, intellect and artistic sensibilities) is preferable to a life centered around "lower faculties" (such as desires for basic comforts or appetites for food and drink).
It is an unquestionable fact that the way of life that employs the higher faculties is strongly preferred to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones by people who are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both. Few human creatures would agree to be changed into any of the lower animals in return for a promise of the fullest allowance of animal pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no educated person would prefer to be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would rather be selfish and base, even if they were convinced that the fool, the dunce or the rascal is better satisfied with his life than they are with theirs. If they ever think they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their situation for almost any other, however undesirable they may think the other to be. Someone with higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is probably capable of more acute suffering, and is certainly vulnerable to suffering at more points, than someone of an inferior type; but in spite of these drawbacks he can’t ever really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.
But the most appropriate label is a sense of dignity. All human beings have this sense in one form or another, and how strongly a person has it is roughly proportional to how well endowed he is with the higher faculties. In those who have a strong sense of dignity, their dignity is so essential to their happiness that they couldn’t want, for more than a moment, anything that conflicts with it.
It is true of course that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied and thus of being contented; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness that he can look for, given how the world is, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they won’t make him envy the person who isn’t conscious of the imperfections only because he has no sense of the good that those imperfections are imperfections of — for example, the person who isn’t bothered by the poor quality of the conducting because he doesn’t enjoy music anyway. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig think otherwise, that is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
The utilitarian standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and even if it can be doubted whether a noble character is always happier because of its nobleness, such a character certainly makes other people happier, and the world in general gains immensely from its existence. So utilitarianism would achieve its end only through the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual got benefit only from the nobleness of others, with his own nobleness serving to reduce his own happiness.
Here, Mill discusses the potential demandingness of utilitarianism in cases where personal sacrifices are required to maximize overall happiness in the world.
Only while the world is in a very imperfect state can it happen that anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness; but while the world is in that imperfect state, I fully admit that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue that can be found in man. I would add something that may seem paradoxical: in this present imperfect condition of the world the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of bringing about such happiness as is attainable. For nothing else can raise a person above the chances of life by making him feel that fate and fortune—let them do their worst!—have no power to subdue him. Once he feels that, it frees him from excessive anxiety about the evils of life and lets him calmly develop the sources of satisfaction that are available to him, not concerning himself with the uncertainty regarding how long they will last or the certainty that they will end.
The utilitarian morality does recognise that human beings can sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others ; it merely refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. It regards as wasted any sacrifice that doesn’t increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness. The only self-renunciation it applauds is devotion to the happiness of others.
Key Principle The Principle of Equal Consideration
Mill holds that to live a morally good life, we must be unbiased in our consideration of other beings' happiness. Every sentient being's pleasure or pain counts. After stating this "Principle of Equal Consideration" in the following passage, he goes on to consider how a society guided by it would be organized.
The happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.
As the practical way to get as close as possible to this ideal, the ethics of utility would command two things. (1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole. (2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct that are conducive to universal happiness. If (2) is done properly, it will tend to have two results: (2a) The individual won’t be able to conceive the possibility of being personally happy while acting in ways opposed to the general good; and (2b) in each individual a direct impulse to promote the general good will be one of the habitual motives of action, and the feelings connected with it will fill a large and prominent place in his sentient existence. This is the true character of the utilitarian morality.
Thought Experiment Utilitarianism in Action: The Trolley Problem
In 1967, the philosopher Philippa Foot introduced what is now one of the most famous thought experiments in ethics, known as the Trolley Problem . In the most basic version of the thought experiment, a runaway trolley is headed down a track, barreling toward five people who are tied to the track and unable to move. On a side track, there's a single person also tied up and unable to move. You are positioned at a switch that can divert the trolley to its side track. If you do nothing, the trolley will continue on its current path and kill the five people ahead of it; if you pull the switch, you will divert the trolley onto the side track, killing the one person tied up there.
What would a utilitarian like Mill say is the right thing to do in this scenario? Would they think it matters who is tied to the tracks? Do you agree?
Objection Objections to Utilitarianism
Pleasure should not be the highest aim.
Mill directly addresses several objections to utilitarianism in this work. Here are some of the most important, along with Mill's responses.
Objection: The idea that pleasure is the highest aim of human life makes us no better than base animals.
Now, such a theory of life arouses utter dislike in many minds, including some that are among the most admirable in feeling and purpose. The view that life has (as they express it) no higher end —no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit— than pleasure they describe as utterly mean and grovelling, a doctrine worthy only of pigs .
The accusation implies that human beings are capable only of pleasures that pigs are also capable of. If this were true, there’d be no defence against the charge, but then it wouldn’t be a charge; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same for humans as for pigs, the rule of life that is good enough for them would be good enough for us. The comparison of the utilitarian life to that of beasts is felt as degrading precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have higher faculties than the animal appetites, and once they become conscious of them they don’t regard anything as happiness that doesn’t include their gratification.
Utilitarianism Is Burdensome
Objection: Utilitarianism sets unrealistically high moral standards.
Objectors sometimes find fault with utilitarianism’s standard as being too high for humanity. To require people always to act from the motive of promoting the general interests of society—that is demanding too much, they say.
This is to confuse the rule of action with the motive for acting. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we can know them; but no system of ethics requires that our only motive in everything we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so if the rule of duty doesn’t condemn them. It is especially unfair to utilitarianism to object to it on the basis of this particular misunderstanding, because utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost everyone in asserting that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action though it has much to do with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive is duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays a friend who trusts him is guilty of a crime, even if his aim is to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.
The Felicific Calculus Is Impractical
Objection: In practice, it is not feasible to calculate which action will maximize overall utility every time we face a decision.
Before acting, one doesn’t have time to calculate and weigh the effects on the general happiness of any line of conduct.
This is just like saying: "Before acting, one doesn’t have time on each occasion to read through the Old and New Testaments; so it is impossible for us to guide our conduct by Christianity." The answer to the objection is that there has been plenty of time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind has been learning by experience what sorts of consequences actions are apt to have, this being something on which all the morality of life depends. The objectors talk as if the start of this course of experience had been put off until now, so that when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of someone else he has to start at that moment considering for the first time whether murder and theft are harmful to human happiness!
If mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would reach agreement about what is useful, and would arrange for their notions about this to be taught to the young and enforced by law and opinion. Any ethical standard whatever can easily be "shown" to work badly if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it! But on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs that have thus come down to us from the experience of mankind are the rules of morality for the people in general—and for the philosopher until he succeeds in finding something better.
Utilitarianism Enables Hypocrisy
Objection: Utilitarianism opens the door to dishonest defenses of bad behavior.
We are told that a utilitarian will be apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules; and that when he is tempted to do something wrong he will see more utility in doing it than in not doing it.
Is utilitarianism the only morality that can provide us with excuses for evil doing, and means of cheating our own conscience? Of course not! Such excuses are provided in abundance by all doctrines that recognise the existence of conflicting considerations as a fact in morals; and this is recognized by every doctrine that any sane person has believed. It is the fault not of any creed but of the complicated nature of human affairs that rules of conduct can’t be formulated so that they require no exceptions, and hardly any kind of action can safely be stated to be either always obligatory or always condemnable.
Every ethical creed gives the morally responsible agent some freedom to adapt his behaviour to special features of his circumstances; and under every creed, at the opening thus made, self-deception and dishonest reasoning get in. Every moral system allows for clear cases of conflicting obligation. If utility is the basic source of moral obligations, utility can be invoked to decide between obligations whose demands are incompatible. The utility standard may be hard to apply, but it is better than having no standard. In other systems, the moral laws all claim independent authority, so that there’s no common umpire entitled to settle conflicts between them; when one of them is claimed to have precedence over another, the basis for this is little better than sophistry, allowing free scope for personal desires and preferences — unless the conflict is resolved by the unadmitted influence of considerations of utility.
This digital essay was prepared by Blake Ziegler and Justin Christy.
Model Essay – Utilitarianism
August 14, 2018.
To what extent, if any, is Utilitarianism a good theory for approaching moral decisions in life? (30/40 Grade B)
Below is a sample essay from our book on Model Essays available in the shop. If you have an essay you’d be happy for us to include in our next selection please email it to me (preferably grade A or B standard). I will mark it with detailed comments for free if we use it. Other essays can be marked for £10 an essay – please buy an essay marking credit in the shop.
Arguably, the use of utilitarianism for the making of moral decisions is more detrimental to a society than it is beneficial. Indeed the very basis on which utilitarianism is founded, ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’, proves to be the first stumbling block. The ‘paradox of hedonism’ suggests that pleasure itself cannot be directly obtained. Instead, we must aim for more substantial conclusions, such as wealth or power – pleasure is merely a symptom that follows. This idea is most acutely explained by politician William Bennett: ‘Happiness is like a cat, If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.’
Good. Excellent summary of the utilitarian problem that once you pursue happiness or pleasure as an end in itself it tends to elude you.
Therefore, to base one’s entire ethical approach to life on happiness, something which is so fleeting and indistinct, suddenly seems irrational. You need to mention a philosopher here such as Mill and ground the argument in what he says . If we cannot amass pleasure within ourselves, how can we be so vain as to assume we can recognise its form in others, particularly those we don’t know (e.g. in the case of a politician forming their policies on utilitarian principles.) That is not to say that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in a wider sense will always be futile, but that one should make decisions independently, on grounds other than those utilitarian, and allow happiness to follow.
Is it not true to say we can assess polices looking backwards with hindsight because all the consequences are known, but not forwards when there are often unintended consequences? This paragraph is too general to be of much analytical quality – make sure you go straight into a philosophical theory.
On the other hand, rule utilitarianism appears to offer a resolution. If one chooses to implement a pre-determined set of rules (e.g. to avoid lying, to be pacifistic, to be modest,) which predominantly bring about the most ‘pleasure’/good for society, then focus can be diverted away from pursuing you mean personal happiness here happiness, and instead towards living a righteous life.
Yes, but again, you need to give this a theoretical grounding in Mill’s so-called ‘weak rule utilitarianism’ – Mill’s point is we are foolish to ignore the experience of people who have gone before us in terms of general rules or guidelines for creating the happy society. But when moral dilemmas occur we revert to being act utilitarians.
Jeremy Bentham (the father of modern utilitarianism) was somewhat of a polymath – to suggest that he was solely a ‘philosopher’ would be a vast understatement. This kind of comment is irrelevant to the question and a waste of time. Undoubtedly, he was also a great social reformer, basing his beliefs on the underlying principle of egalitarianism (i.e. equality for all.) However, in many ways, utilitarianism innately contradicts ‘egalité . ’
This paragraph is a good example of the kind of paragraph a highly analytical essay never contains because you are merely describing the life and times of Mr Bentham and not adding anything to the argument.
Initially a thought experiment experiment devised by the American philosopher Robert Nozick, ‘the utility monster,’ undermines the very equality for which Bentham’s philosophy once fought. Visualise a situation in which the hedonic calculus is being employed. In such a case, the intensity (quality) of the perceived happiness must be acknowledged. For illustration’s sake, imagine rations are being distributed amongst a group of isolated individuals. However, one of these individuals appears to gain a disproportionately high intensity of pleasure on receiving food, despite all other individuals being of an equally critical state of health (e.g. starvation.) To apply the hedonic calculus would not only (unfairly) favour the minority, but also pose a great risk to the majority (assuming that the individual’s pleasure is greater than the collective pleasure of the majority.)
Ye s this is a good point but it wouldn’t apply to Mill’s theory because social utility would mean we need principles of justice, otherwise any of us would be permanently miserable at just the thought of a utility monster.
The most valid counterargument to which is proposed by the British philosopher Derek Parfit, arguing that the scale of happiness should be seen as asymptotic rather than linear. That is, the happiness of a utility monster cannot perpetually increase, but will eventually reach a point near enough to ‘complete’ happiness. Hence, such a being is not conceivable. This argument bears a strong resemblance to prioritarianism, which suggests that individuals on the lower end of the ‘pleasure spectrum’ will obtain a greater amount of happiness (‘per unit of utility’) than those closer to the reverse end.
Again a good point and actually illustrating what economists call the principle of diminishing marginal utility – we eventually have less and less satisfaction as an individual until at some point we experience no satisfaction at all.
Or, to some extent, the intensity of happiness could thereby be omitted from the hedonic calculus to account for the utility monster. However, there is also a troubling flaw with the seventh principle – ‘extent,’ or the amount of people that a particular moral choice may affect. Counterintuitively, the one society which utilitarianism does not appear to permit, is a microcosmic ‘utopia.’ When summating the pleasure of individuals, the greatest amount will be achieved, theoretically, by an extremely populous group with indifferent levels of happiness rather than a very small but extremely contented group. This is known as the ‘repugnant conclusion.’
Interesting and unusual point. Which philosopher talks about this problem?
In counterargument one might say, ‘the average pleasure should supersede the total amount of pleasure’ for this particular instance. Yet this line of argument spawns issues of its own. A simple average can easily be skewed by extremities. Such that one individual in a state of euphoria would significantly raise the average happiness of his miserable counterparts. Under the aforementioned, atrocities such as slavery could feasibly be justified. What’s the suffering of one thousand imprisoned subordinates if the overseer is delighted by the recent success of his cotton farm? Utilitarianism, in this context, seeks to diminish the more valuable pursuits (charity, liberal arts) over the happiness one gains through materialism (e.g. the wealth garnered from a cotton farm.)
Even if all the preceding shortcomings were to be deemed permissible, there is still a flaw which is perhaps the most pertinent of all. Humans, by their very nature, are unable to reliably predict consequence, and without consequence, the principle of utilitarianism is worthless. Given the nature of the ‘ripple effect,’ it would be naive to assume that every possible consequence of even the simplest of decisions could be accounted for. Or moreover, to predict the ways in which people would (potentially dangerously,) apply utilitarianism if it were to be adopted as a global ethic.
Yes, again a very good point.
Even attempting to apply such a primitive, nebulous philosophy to an infinite diversity of ethical decisions seems rather unrefined. Despite superficially appearing succinct and rational, the impracticalities of achieving ‘the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people’ cannot be overlooked. Indeed, utilitarianism is theoretically sound but there are far too many exceptional cases for it to be one’s ruling principle.
‘Primitive’ and ‘nebulous’ are rather emotive (rude) words to use of a philosophy that has guided Government policy for years. Welfare is another word for happiness (just a little more neutral!).In Politics and Economics we use social welfare measures to evaluate our decisions – as it is impartial.
Overall 30/40 75% Grade B
The essay has some very interesting points to make. However, it would not achieve an A* because the establishment of how the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill actually works is rather thin. Particularly, there is little substance about how Mill’s weak rule utilitarianism actually works, and how some argue that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. In terms of social benefits versus individual benefits the candidate needs to bring out how this operates in Mill’s theory, and how he grounds the final chapter of his essay on justice as a fundamental prerequisite of the happy society. Mill also moves his whole argument much closer to Aristotle as he writes his essay – leading some to call him an inconsistent utilitarian because he can’t quite decide whether to go for qualitative pleasures or another concept of long-term welfare that is closer to eudaimonia in Aristotelean thought. It is lighter on AO1 marks than AO2 but seems to miss some of the analytical steps necessary to be a really compelling argument.
AO1 Level 4 10/16
A good demonstration of knowledge and understanding. Addresses the question well. Good selection of relevant material, used appropriately on the whole. Mostly accurate knowledge which demonstrates good understanding of the material used, which should have reasonable amounts of depth or breadth. A good range of scholarly views.
It is ‘good’ because it contains a very strong critical thesis. But it is neither very good nor excellent because the precise detail of how Bentham’s and Mills theories work is lacking – it is assumed rather than stated and established and analysed. For example, there is an interesting relationship in Mill between higher and lower pleasures and act and rue utilitarianism whereby we should, Mill argues, generally follow a rule which past experience suggest will maximise social happiness but when we face a moral dilemma we revert to being an act utilitarian. There is also an ambiguity in the question which is never considered – moral decisions for whom?
AO2 level 5 20/24
A very good demonstration of analysis and evaluation in response to the question. successful and clear analysis, evaluation and argument. Views very well stated, coherently developed and justified. There is a well–developed and sustained line of reasoning which is coherent, relevant and logically structured.
It would have been excellent if there had been a little more engagement with the academic philosophers who produce the arguments, rather than just the arguments themselves.
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