Recap from previous article: 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.
Essentially, the theory is an attempt to answer the question ‘what ought a man to do?’
Ethical decision making needs to come into practice with decisions concerning science. So utilitarianism is sometimes considered in the decision making process. Some argue it is a moral approach that focuses on the wider community. Others argue that by focusing on the larger majority, low risk health issues will still be ignored, and people with rare conditions too.
A criticism of utilitarianism is due to the fact that it does not explain how the happiness will be distributed; if we focus on the majority then the minority have to suffer as a consequence. This is a strength of preference utilitarianism however as it allows us to focus on the quality not quantity, as Mill said ‘each person’s happiness is one to their own.’
It is difficult to put the hedonic calculus into practice as it is far too complex. When making decisions, trying to assume the consequence can be difficult, one does not know how much pleasure will be gained. For example, one may give to charity with the intension to gain maximal happiness, however that money may not go very far and therefore those who will benefit from charities may still continue to suffer.
As utilitarianism focuses on the consequence and not the action itself, it allows for wrong actions to be alone in order to gain happiness. Bentham ignores intrinsic values such as honesty and integrity and just focuses on gaining happiness. It is quite an emotionless approach as there is no recognition that is wrong to hurt others to promote happiness. For example, the action of killing is wrong, however if killing someone could result in 5 extra lives being saved, 5 lives being saved leads to more happiness therefore justifies the wrong action of killing just one person. This criticism undermines his theory greatly.
Utilitarianism is quite subjective, ideas can be manipulated to justify wrong actions with the right intensions. However, utilitarianism does link morality with the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain and misery; so as a result happiness is generally met. Nonetheless, the weaknesses of utilitarianism do undermine the strengths.