a) What is meant by this claim (7)
b) Assess the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism as the definitive ethical theory (18)
a) This claim is the single most important teaching of utilitarianism, as the principle of utility. Utilitarianism is a nineteenth century ethical theory most often attributed to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They adopted the principle that goodness is identified by actions, which produce the greatest total pleasure for everyone affected by the consequences. Wrong actions are those which do not produce the greatest total pleasure. However, it was at this point that Mill made an important qualification to this so called ‘pleasure principle’. He replaced ‘pleasure’ with ‘happiness’ as the main criteria for Utilitarians, and it is his definition which has become the commonly adopted principle of Utilitarianism.
The principle is a forward-looking consequentialist theory which holds that actions are made right or wrong by something after the action has occurred – the consequences. The principle claims that we should choose the action most likely to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Thus in one set of circumstances action A may be the most appropriate, while under other circumstances action B might bring more happiness to more people. Therefore, an action is justified in terms of its usefulness in any one particular set of circumstances. The theory is thus one of universal ethical hedonism. If an action brings or increases pleasure (happiness) then it is right. Bentham proposed the ‘Hedonic calculus’ to calculate the most pleasurable action. Seven elements are taken into consideration; the intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity (remoteness), fecundity (choice of there being further pleasures), purity (not followed by pain) and extent of the pleasure. It would therefore be theoretically possible to calculate whom it was morally right to rescue first from a fire; a child, a pregnant woman, an old man or a scientist who possesses the formula for the ultimate cure for cancer.
Peter Vardy in ‘The Puzzle of Ethics’ cites the case of a young pregnant woman who is planning a ski trip. If she chooses to abort the pregnancy in order to ski, the pleasure will be minor and temporary; if she chooses to abandon the holiday, the long lasting and intense pleasure of having the child will outweigh her initial disappointment.
John Stuart Mill developed the principle by referring to qualitative rather than quantitative pleasure, recognising some of the problems inherent in Bentham’s formulation. He argued that pleasures of the mind should take precedence over physical pleasures and that, since basic human requirements for survival were fulfilled, a human being’s primary moral concerns should be for the higher order ‘goods’. He claimed: ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’.
James Rachaels said that the theory of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ rests on three concepts. Firstly, all actions are to be judged by virtue of their consequences. Secondly, the only thing that matters is the amount of happiness that is caused by an action and finally Rachaels claimed that Utilitarianism provides a safeguard against selfishness. ‘No-one’s happiness is more important than anyone else’s’. It appeals to self-interest, as most people benefit from the maximising of good consequences for society at large.
b) James Rachaels called this theory ‘a survivor’. It appeals to anybody who is a decision-maker. He said until you are in a position of leadership, you can never understand how your decision affects others. The fact that the principle of utility can be applied universally, to any situation also works in favour of this ethical theory. As too does the fact that it is relatively straightforward, constantly weighing up happiness and consequences. The Principle encourages a democratic approach in decision-making which is also seen as an advantage. The majority’s interest is always considered and a dangerous minority is not allowed to dominate. However, everyone’s happiness is taken into consideration and for this reason it is observed that nobody’s happiness is more important than anyone else's.
The theory also appeals to theists as its principles are compatible with the teachings of Jesus, who preached an ethic of love, requiring men to work for the well-being of others. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. (Matt 7:12).
The fact that the principle rests on the evaluation of consequences is also viewed as a strength. It is seen as more reasonable to judge a moral choice in view of its consequences, rather than only by personal preferences. Furthermore, it means that present circumstances can be judged without reference to past precedence. In this way the theory is greatly similar to ‘situation ethics’ that allows certain actions to be taken which suit the particular situation.
Nevertheless, the principle of utility has come under fire from a number of different sources. For example, a number of philosophers have asked whether the utility principle is sufficient for an adequate, variable ethic – can a moral judgement be reduced to the question of maximising the benefits?
Moreover, the principle has been criticised for being impractical. This is because the practical application of the theory requires the ability to predict the long-term consequences of an action and, to predict those consequences with unfailing accuracy, past experience can, to some extent, guide future experience, but there is never any guarantee that circumstances will turn out exactly the same.
There has also been criticism concerning the democracy inflicted by such a theory. John Rawles says ‘You judge a fair society on the way it looks after its minority not its majority’. This is certainly true to some extent, as if the minority are not accounted for, the society can not reasonably be classed as an equitable one. This is similar to the criticism of William Frontera. He said that Utilitarianism is not compatible with justice, it is only concerned with the greatest happiness and how it achieves it, not with taking care of individuals within society.
Alistair MacIntyre further criticised Utilitarianism for assuming that most people are good. This is dangerous, as you can justify evil with it. For example, if a woman was jogging through a park and came across a gang of men who gang-raped her. Utilitarianism justifies their actions as the men’s pleasure is far greater than the woman’s and, as they are the majority, the woman’s pain would not matter. Similarly the theory cannot be used to determine what is universally good. Under Bentham’s theory it would be possible to justify acts of sadism or torture if the majority, no matter how perverse the pleasure, carried them out. Mill’s qualitative principle does go some way to addressing this weakness, however.
The theory has also been criticised for being too simplistic. The theory relies on a single principle by which we make moral decisions. However, we cannot solve every dilemma by reference to one ethical theory because every dilemma is unique in some way. Furthermore, values such as justice have no relevance, as the majority may not support that which is just. Additionally, the theory gives no credit to motivation. Not every action done out of good will is going to result in good consequences, but the attitude with which it is performed should be worthy of some credit.
Theists have criticised the theory as they claim responsibility for bringing about the best outcome belongs to God and not to man. However, if such claims were to be relied upon, it would give man little encouragement to go out and shape his own future, to do things for himself.
Furthermore, the theory makes no allowance for personal relationships, for example if a man’s wife were dying in a fire, reason would not tell him first to rescue a scientist with a cure for cancer first. His wife would be his first priority We have duties to those whom we love which will always be more important to us than duties to a society of unknown individuals.
More general criticisms ask what is meant by pleasure? There is more than one kind of satisfaction that can be included in the category of pleasure/happiness. It seems that Utilitarians require a hierarchy of happiness. They need to say which kinds of happiness ought to be preferred if there is need to prefer one to another, and which kinds of happiness are to be rejected as being vicious. Furthermore how exactly is happiness to be assessed? It is not something which can be qualified to a degree.
The amount of critics as opposed to supporters seem to suggest that there are a number of flaws in the principle of utility which have failed to be addressed by any further developments of the theory. In principle the theory does appear to be practical, however, in reality it is debatable whether it would be a workable ethic. This is mainly due to the ignorance of individual rights, especially those of the minority. However, there is a compromise. This is the idea of a qualified Utilitarianism, which accepts the claims that every individual has certain rights, but believes once these rights have been respected, Utilitarian calculations ought to come into play. Thus ensuring individual and minority rights are protected.