Utilitarianism and Bentham Essay

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Outline the key features of utilitarianism (539 words)

This theory of utilitarianism was defined by Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory which means that moral actions are evaluated by the consequences or outcomes of the action. The theory suggests that there is one rule/maxim that everyone should follow in order to determine what is right and wrong, i.e. the principle of ‘utility’ which suggests that everyone should do the most useful thing which serves the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is the belief that the right action is that which produces, or tends to produce, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Likewise, John Mills defined happiness as follows: “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure”

Bentham argues that happiness was the only intrinsic good and suffering the only intrinsic evil. This means that happiness has a quality of goodness that is universally recognised and valued. In order to understand what produces the greatest happiness, Bentham came up with the Hedonic Calculus which attempts to measure the benefits of an action by its duration, intensity, certainty, extent proximity and purity. (DICEPP)

Bentham’s approach is often referred to as ‘Act Utilitarianism’ because he evaluates each individual action rather than creating a generic rule. Bentham is an ethical hedonist, believing that the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain determine our moral decisions. However, Bentham failed to distinguish between different types of happiness, which John Stuart Mill saw as a weakness that needed to be corrected.

Mills said that, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”

This means the pleasures of mind should take precedence over physical pleasures. Once basic human requirements for survival are fulfilled, a human being’s primary moral concern should be for the higher order goods, i.e. truth, justice, education, purpose in life etc. He was concerned that human beings should achieve their highest potential, their eudaimonia.

Mill’s believed it was possible to educate people to seek these higher pleasures. Through experience we discover which actions tend towards human happiness, and these actions are promoted through moral laws, which he calls secondary principles.

Secondary principles provide a ‘rule of thumb’ which may be used to guide people to make the right choices to maximise happiness. Mills approach is, therefore, referred to as “Rule utilitarianism” because he believes it is possible to define certain types of action as qualitatively good and these actions ought to be pursued as a general rule unless there is sufficient reason to believe it is better to do otherwise.

Mill also positively developed Bentham’s approach by the introduction of the harm principle, which states that the majority may not interfere with the minority unless it is to prevent harm to others. This principle allows for a whole society to be provided with happiness rather than a large number benefiting from a small number of citizens.

A variation of the harm principle is called Negative Utilitarianism, this approach considers what acts might produce the ‘least harm for the least number’. It is argued that since there are more ways to do harm than do good, we should focus on preventing harm rather than promoting goodness.

Critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of this as a practical theory (337 words)

Bentham and Mills were both attempting to provide a priori, universal and accessible means for…