Utilitarianism

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Utilitarianism (also: utilism) is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximizing utility/minimizing negative utility (utility can be defined as pleasure, preference satisfaction, knowledge or other things) as summed among all sentient beings. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Utilitarianism was described by Bentham as "the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle."[1] Utility, the good to be maximized, has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain), although preference utilitarians define it as the satisfaction of preferences. It may be described as a life stance, with happiness or pleasure being of ultimate importance.

Utilitarianism can be characterised as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. It can be contrasted with deontological ethics (which do not regard the consequences of an act as a determinant of its moral worth) and virtue ethics (which focuses on character), as well as with other varieties of consequentialism.

In general usage, the term utilitarian refers to a somewhat narrow economic or pragmatic viewpoint. Philosophical utilitarianism, however, is a much broader view that encompasses all aspects of people's life.

Both rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism are teleological (from the Greek τέλοϛ for "end", "purpose", or "goal") meaning that they are consequential, however Bentham's act utilitarianism is primarily absolutist, even though it is much more free than theories such as those put forward by Immanuel Kant. This means that in all acts require "Felicific calculus" to achieve "the greatest pleasure for the greatest number." Therefore there are definite rules and codes as to what the person must do in each situation to benefit the most people. The hedonic calculus is what Bentham thought all people must do before deciding the utility of the certain act in question. It is dependent on:

  • Its intensity.
  • Its duration.
  • Its certainty or uncertainty.
  • Its propinquity, or remoteness.
  • Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by similar sensations: that is, pleasures, if it is pleasure: pains, if it is pain.
  • Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by, sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pain, if it is pleasure: pleasure, if it is pain.
  • Its extent (the number of people who are affected by it).

However, Mill's rule utilitarianism is much more relative in that he encourages people to do acts that are pleasurable to themselves as long as they are what he calls a "higher pleasure" for example, the arts like literature, poetry, the opera. However, the meta-ethics of rule utilitarianism can be questioned as they are much more absolutist, since Mill is absolute in what he values as a higher pleasure.


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