Utilitarianism is a teleological theory devised by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. It abides by the quotation ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ meaning that it focuses on the amount of happiness that can be made. As utilitarianism is a teleological theory, it can also be called a consequentialist theory, meaning that it focuses on the overall outcome and not the action itself. Utilitarianism is a relativist system, meaning that most versions don’t set rules with the exception of rule utilitarianism. The theory was then later developed by John Steward Mill who followed Bentham’s ideas.
There are different types of utilitarianism, one being Act Utilitarianism which is mainly associated with Bentham. It is labelled as the theory of usefulness. The idea of it is that one should act with regard to how much happiness can be gained for the maximal amount of people. For example, if a person has some money, they could buy themselves something to make them happy, or they can give to charity and make multiple people happy. With this example, Act Utilitarianism would say that the person should go with the option to give to charity as it is maximising the amount of pleasure.
Bentham believed in hedonism. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the ‘chief good’. He also suggested that humans were quite animalistic, and were motivated by pleasure and tried to chase pleasure whilst avoiding pain. Bentham came up with hedonic calculus; this was devised to set out ways to measure the amount of happiness that can be put into practical use. The hedonic calculus included duration, certainty, intensity, immediacy, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent.
Another type of utilitarianism is preference. Preference utilitarianism claims that we should maximise not pleasure, but the satisfaction of people’s preferences. For example, we could give 100 people £100,000 and make them all happy, or a person who has a life threatening disease could be cured and may now live their life happily. This is an example of intense happiness, which is considered as more valuable than maximising pleasure by some. This type of utilitarianism is something Mill looked at.
Mill said that rather than focusing on maximising happiness, we should focus on the quality and the extent. He stated that ‘the greatest happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce good and wrong if they produce the reverse of happiness.’ Mill also distinguished the difference between higher and lower pleasures by saying that pleasures of the mind are higher than those of the body make it ‘more desirable and more valuable.’ This avoids the use of one’s sexual desire causing rape.
Mill also used Rule Utilitarianism; a form of utilitarianism which follows set rules in order to gain happiness. These rules everyone must obey. For example the law, in particular the example being the law ‘do not kill.’ If everyone abides by this law, happiness can be conserved but when someone breaks that rules, that is when pain comes.
Lastly, another form of utilitarianism is negative utilitarianism. This focuses on the avoidance of pain rather than the desire for pleasure. By pain being avoided this often leads to happiness, but that is not the main focus.