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Utilitarianism and the greatest happiness principle

The right action is that which gives the most benefits to the most number of people is Utilitarianism’s greatest happiness principle. Jeremy Bentham offers a way in which to calculate the pleasure or the greatest happiness to be derived from actions through the felicific calculus or utility calculus.

Seven aspects with regards to this calculation can be seen: duration or the length of time of the pleasure; certainty or sureness of the occurrence of the pleasure; proximity or how soon will the pleasure come about; fecundity or creation of other pleasures other than the one intended; intensity or the intensity of the pleasure; extent or how many others will come across this pleasure, and purity or how devoid of pain is the pleasure. Utilitarianism is criticized primarily because it does not put concern over the minority.

The individuals in the least-advantaged position are not taken care of in the task of acquiring the greatest pleasurable accounts for the greatest number of people. It basically weakens individual value. Since utilitarianism is after the actions which can provide the greatest pleasure for the most number, the value of every single person is not accounted for. Utilitarianism, in its effort to seek the happiness of the majority, relocates the worth of the few into even more degrading status. It is indeed quite doubtful if the greatest pleasure for the most number can ever be met.

There is no apparent guarantee. This is another criticism pinned against utilitarianism. Even with the use of the felicific calculus or any of its counterparts, we can never actually bring an exact measure of pleasure, much more the most accurate details which can assure at the very least that the goals can ever be realized consequently. In line with the second criticism, it can further be claimed that what we can only have are mere estimations, the closest we can get to by using the felicific calculus and never at the precise measure of pleasure.

And more often than not, the details are usually the critical factors which directly affect the outcome of decisions and actions. Rule utilitarianism is the doctrine which asserts that one should first consider the rules existing in determining which actions must be done in certain situations rather than which action will bring about the most of pleasure. On the other hand, act utilitarianism argues that the most basic thing that must be considered is the act which results to the most pleasure.

And this action is intrinsically the morally right action. As with the case of new drugs, a rule utilitarian will not hesitate to go with the implemented rules regarding the testing of new drugs. This the rule utilitarian will do so as to arrive at the most pleasurable result and not solely on the consequential worth of the action per se. An act utilitarian, on the other hand, will obviously go for the testing of new drugs if it generates the most pleasure.

One example wherein we can use the utilitarian principles on personal affairs is when one is placed in a situation where one has to decide over what options are to be chosen in family gatherings, such as the place where the occasion is to be held. Applying the utilitarian principles, one will then opt to choose the location where most of the family members will enjoy the most.


MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics : Theory and Contemporary Issues. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.

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