Utilitarianism and Greatest Number Essay

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Assess the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a teleological theory first devised by Jeremy Bentham. The theory focuses on the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory; the end justifies the means, and thus a thinker would judge the rightness of an action by the end it produces, whether right or wrong. For example, stealing food for your starving family is justified because it results in a good end.

One strength of Act Utilitarianism is that it concentrates on the effects of an action; being a teleological theory. Therefore the consequences of an action are considered, and the theory becomes more of a guideline in society than a firm set of rules. Hence Utilitarianism is very appropriate in a secular society. Through this the circumstances of an individual or various situations can be adapted to the theory. Sarah K Tyler and Gordon Reid state in their book ‘Religious Studies A and A2’, ‘Consequences have real effect on people and should therefore be the basis for evaluating actions.’

Furthermore, for many people happiness is an important aspect of decision making; it is their main aim in life. To have ‘happiness for the greatest number’ as the basis of the theory, evidently overall the greatest happiness is achieved. If the promotion of happiness and lessening of pain is one of our key values, all human actions should have the aims and effects of Utilitarianism.

Equality is exercised in the theory of Utilitarianism; all are treated the same and none receive special treatment. A Utilitarian would argue that the common use of the principle of utility has led to great social reform in the UK, such as the Divorce and Abortion Acts of 1969.

A further strength of Utilitarianism is the simplicity to follow the teachings. The main aim is to maintain the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’, and any other suggestions of the theory all fall alongside. Mel Thompson states in his book ‘An introduction to Philosophy and Ethics (second edition)’, ‘It is straightforward and based on clear principle.’

Bentham has provided us with a way of calculating ‘happiness for the greatest number’ through the use of the Hedonic Calculus. The Hedonic Calculus is designed to measure how much pleasure or pain an action will cause. Actions are defined as good if they maximise pleasure and minimise pain for the greatest number. Bentham stated that ‘Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’

On the other hand, Act Utilitarianism relies on an individual’s ability to predict the consequences of an action, which is impossible! It provides a set of guidelines in the Hedonic Calculus which suggest how we can minimise pain and maximise pleasure, but these decisions can’t be implemented when an instantaneous decision is required. Many consequences are unforeseen; it is very difficult to predict what consequences will result from an action.

Some would argue that Bentham has committed the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, by deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stating that happiness is good is not the same as stating that happiness ought to be good. Happiness is a response to the attainment of things that…