Utilitarianism, in whatever form and context, is the belief that the rightness or goodness of an action, rule or principle should be holistically judged based on its assumed ramifications.
For utilitarians, an action, rule, or principle that is good must produce pleasure, happiness, contentment or welfare to the concerned individuals, implying that they view what is right as that which optimizes one or more of these variables.
Utilitarianism is both a teleological and consequentialist ethical theory as it does not only presupposes that each action, principle or rule must be judged on whether its end result maximizes good, but also assumes that the ramification of an action, principle or rule is the only criterion to judge whether it is right or wrong (Waller, 2010).
The present paper purposes to present the viewpoints of two contemporary philosophers, namely Peter Singer and John Rawls, as regards utilitarianism.
Among contemporary philosophers, Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer stands out as a major advocate of preference utilitarianism.
Singer is ardently committed to the perspectives that ethics must reflect how life is lived, and that “…the consequences to be promoted are those which satisfy the wishes or preferences of the maximum numbers of beings who have preferences” (The Tablet, 2012, para. 2).
The philosopher, who refutes the claim that humans should be more valued than animals, argues that it is only morally and ethically right to aggravate the preferences (desires) of others if by so doing we provide capacity for others to satisfy their preferences.
Consequently, actions, rules, and principles must never be judged on their simple pain-and-pleasure consequences; rather, they must be judged on account of how they influence or affect the interests and preferences of all those concerned (The Tablet, 2012).
Philosopher John Rawls (1921-2001) was known for his persistent and often harsh criticism of utilitarianism, particularly when it comes to social and political justice.
One of the most popular views of Rawls was that “…each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all” (Yonehara, n.d., p. 13).
His second viewpoint revolved around the fact that social and economic inequalities in the world are progressed to gratify two situations: “(1) they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all conditions of fair equality of opportunity; (b) they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle)” (Yonehara, n.d., p. 13).
Consequently, it is obvious that Rawls viewpoints go against some of the basic tenets of utilitarianism – presumably to maximize good to the greatest number of people and to suggest that people are responsible for all the outcomes of their choices (Waller, 2010).
Based on the above, John Rawls, in my view, provides the most convincing argument that deals with fair equality of opportunity for all and equal basic liberties for all, rather than promoting the consequences which satisfy the wishes or preferences of the majority as proposed by Peter Singer.
If Singer’s viewpoints are to be withheld, the claim that condemning minority groups to slavery will produce the greatest utility of happiness to the majority will hold true in line with utilitarianism.
However, we all know that slavery is wrong in spite of its outcomes because it tramples on basic liberties of those involved.
Consequently, we shouldn’t engage in slavery even if utilitarianism theory assumes that such engagement may produce pleasure, happiness, and contentment to the majority or the greatest number of people.
The Tablet. (2012). Preference utilitarianism. Web.
Waller, B.N. (2010). Consider ethics: Theory, readings, and contemporary issues. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Yonehara, M. (n.d.). Utilitarianism and Rawls. Retrieved from http://www.scienceweb.tohoku.ac.jp/special/gcoeis2010/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/T31-Yonehara.pdf