Utilitarianism

October 2nd, 2010 by in News

Utilitarianism states that actions are morally right if and only if they maximize the good (or, alternatively, minimizes the bad).  Classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (as well as many contemporary utilitarians) take ‘the good’ to be pleasure or well-being.  Thus, actions are morally right, on this view, if and only if they maximize pleasure or well-being or minimize suffering.

This approach is sometimes called hedonistic utilitarianism.  For hedonistic utilitarians, the rightness or our actions are determined solely on the basis of consequences of pleasure or pain.

Utilitarian theories may take other goods into consideration.  Preference utilitarianism, for example, takes into account not just pleasures, but the satisfaction of any preference.

Utilitarianism can also be divided along other lines.  Act-utilitarianism claims that we must apply a utilitarian calculation to each and every individual action.  By making this calculation, we can thereby determine the moral rightness or wrongness of each action we plan to take.

Rule-utilitarianism eases the burden that act-utilitarianism places on practical reasoning by establishing moral rules that, when followed, brings about the best consequences.  Rule-utilitarianism can be illustrated by the rule “do not kill.”  As a general rule, we would be better off, that is, the best consequences, or state of affairs, would be brought about, if we all followed the rule “do not kill.”

Objections to Utilitarianism:

There are a number of objections to utilitarian theories, both in their act- formulations and in their rule- formulations.

(1)  Act-utilitarianism, for example, seems to be impractical.  To stop to calculate the possible outcomes of every act we intend to make, as well as the outcomes of all of the possible alternatives to that act is unrealistic.  Moreover, it may hinder one’s ability to bring about the best consequences – for example, in cases where a quick response is vital (as in responding to a car wreck).

(2)  Others have objected to utilitarianism on the grounds that we cannot always predict the outcomes of our actions accurately.  One course of action may seem like it will lead to the best outcome, but we may be (and often are) mistaken.  The best it seems we can do, then, is to guess at the short-term consequences of our actions.

(3)  Objections to utilitarianism have also been made on the grounds that it is excessively demanding and places too large a burden on individuals.  Since utilitarianism says that acts are morally right if and only if they maximize pleasure or well-being, it seems that leisure activities, such as watching television, may be morally wrong because they do not maximize well-being.  Any person watching television could, after all, be doing something else – something that would maximize utility, like helping others or volunteering.

(4)  Finally, utilitarianism receives criticism because seemingly immoral acts and rules can be justified using utilitarianism (this criticism is applicable both to act- and rule- utilitarianism).   Genocides, torture, and other evils may be justified on the grounds that they, ultimately, lead to the best outcome.  Unjust rules – for example, laws that legalize slavery or apartheid – might also be justified on utilitarian grounds.

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