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.
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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.
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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.