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Utilitarianism & John Stuart

Utilitarianism was proposed in the early days by John Stuart, Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick. These early proponents held a hedonistic act of consequentialism. The act of consequentialism argues that an act can only be morally right if it increases the good and if the resultant good of an act is greater than the resultant bad of the same act. Utilitarianism is a recent type of hedonistic ethical theory and it argues that happiness should be the end of the human conduct (Rosen, 2003).

The theory also continues to argue that the distinguishing norms that show whether a certain conduct is right or wrong are pleasure and pain respectively. The theory proposes that if a certain conduct is right it should result into happiness and if it’s wrong then it should result into pain (Mill, 1964). The early proponents propose that each and every person should try and increase pleasure in the world. John Stuart one of the early proponents of Utilitarianism said that happiness leads to pleasure and absence of pain and when actions lead to unhappiness there is pain and lack of pleasure.

Utilitarianism is consequentialist unlike the dentological theory in that it rejects the fact that moral rightness does not depend on consequences and it reduces all the relevant moral factors to consequences hence it is simpler than the dentological theory. The term utilitarianism was accepted when it was adopted by Bentham and many of the English philosophers had advocated the issue. Utilitarianism is also referred to as the immense happiness principle because it aims at doing the greatest good to the greatest number of people to ensure that the people are happy.

Utilitarianism is different from the virtue ethics in that virtue ethics focuses on the character of a person while the utilitarianism focuses on the outcome of a certain act. Some of the early proponents of utilitarianism argue that physical pleasure is of lesser value than spiritual and intellectual pleasure because a competent judge would value the physical pleasure more than the intellectual and spiritual pleasure. They argue that a competent judge is anyone who has had an experience of the lower and the higher pleasures.

The theory is also supported by the early proponents in the argument that any human being would accept to be changed to one of the lower animals with the promise that he or she will have more pleasure. One of the types of utilitarianism is the act utilitarianism which argues that when human beings are faced with a choice they first consider the possible consequences of the actions and then from there they choose to carry out an act that they believe will yield much pleasure.

The rule utilitarianism on the other hand first considers that when an individual is faced with a choice he or she will start by looking at the possible rules that govern the action to be taken (John, 2004). The individual then determines whether a rule should be followed by looking at the possible results if the rule had been followed constantly. The individual then weighs the happiness that is produced by the rule and if the rule produces more happiness then he or she considers the rule as one that should be followed constantly.

This shows that the difference between the act and the rule utilitarianism is based on the difference between the consequences and the rules. The rule utilitarianism is mostly criticized because it may advocate for a rule or rules that when followed they tend to reduce the degree of happiness. Those who are for the rule utilitarianism argue that there are certain exceptions which allow other rules to be broken if and only breaking the rule will increase the happiness, an example of this is the case of an individual having to kill another in the act of self defense.

In this case the individual has killed so as to increase his or her happiness although he or she has broken a rule. In the rule utilitarianism there is a division that is referred to as strong rule utilitarianism had this branch defines rules that apply to each and every person and they should never be broken at any time. The utilitarianism of weak rules was proposed by John Stuart Mill and it argued that rules were formed on earlier examples that were beneficial to the society it was possible under certain circumstances to carry out an act that increases happiness and at the same time break one of the rule set by the society.

An example of this can be in the case where a killer gang asks an individual where his neighbors were, the individual here has no option but to break one rule (do not lie) so as to save his neighbors hence increasing happiness in them. Although most of the proponents of the rule utilitarianism say that it is necessary to formulate rules of the thumb in certain situations it does not mean that the rule of the thumb is the same as the rule utilitarianism.

It has been argued that the rule utilitarianism ends up being the act utilitarianism because there are many exceptions in the rules and so the individual ends up considering the consequences of the actions to be taken rather than the rules. The other type of utilitarianism is the two level utilitarianism states that an individual should apply moral thinking which is intuitive in the case of rule utilitarianism because intuitive moral thinking tends to increase happiness. Negative utilitarianism is the other type of utilitarianism and it argues that an individual should prevent suffering to the greatest number of people.

Those who are the proponents of this type of utilitarianism argue that this is an ethical formula that can be deemed more effective because the greatest damages tend to be more consequential than the greatest excellent according to the society. Total utilitarianism argues that the utility of a population should be measured based on the total utility of the members of that population. The average utilitarianism on the other hand argues that the utility of a population should be measured based on the population’s average utility (Geoffrey, 1996).

An example of utilitarianism is in the case where people have to debate the program of a school lunch. In this case the utilitarian would first estimate the benefits of the program; this can be done by estimating the increase in nutrition, improvement of the performance of the school and other benefits that the contractors would enjoy. They would then look at the costs of the program and see if the benefits are more than the costs, if this is so then the program is implemented. The utilitarian in this case assume that the benefits would increase happiness while the cost would reduce the happiness.

The major pros of utilitarianism are: utilitarianism is a simple formula; this is because it simply calculates the goods and the evils associated with any kind of an action. This means that a society is able to determine what is right and wrong by assessing the evils and the benefits of certain actions; this enables a society to judge any action. The principle of utilitarianism is based on common sense and so it is applicable to many individuals. The other advantage of utilitarianism is that it is that the principle is scientifically inspired hence it is applicable in many instances including scientific decisions.

The principle of utilitarianism has been well established, this means that it is empirically true as it has been tested, criticized and approved by many individuals and organizations. Mill proved this principle by the argument that each and every person desires what is his or her happiness. The principle of utilitarianism serves as an explanation to explain why some criminal acts are committed and why some acts are punished for whereas others are not. A good example of this is the case of killing a human being as an act of self defense or man slaughter, the acts are similar but the punishments are different.

Some of the cons of utilitarianism include: justice objection; this is where justice is objected in a certain case because of the principle of utilitarianism. A good example of this is the tramp case where justice requires that the tramp is not punished and other hand the proponents of utilitarianism think that it is right to frame the tramp. The other disadvantage of utilitarianism is the integrity objection where a person has to object some integrity so as to increase his or her happiness.

A good example in this case would be where one has fallen on the hands of a killer group and it commands the individual to kill innocent people, whether the individual kills the people or not they have to die so the individual is forced to object integrity and kill the people. The global utility will suffer in the same way whether the individual kills the people or not. According to the utilitarian committing the act does not have any value as the global utility will suffer the same way. The other disadvantage is tolerance objection.

Utilitarianism is considered as a form of the majority rule and this means that at times the people’s preferences may be questionable, this means that some acts that termed by majority to be moral may be immoral in the real world. A group of people whether minority or majority should have the freedom to choose what they want to do as long as it does not go against the rights of other people. The other major disadvantage of utilitarianism is that it requires us to assign values to benefits and costs and assigning values to life and art may sometimes be very difficult (Manuel, Claire, Thomas, and Michael, 2009).

In conclusion the principle of utilitarianism is argues that an act that increases pleasure to the majority people is morally right. Utilitarianism though does not give the different qualities of pleasure or what causes one pleasure to be more valuable than another by the same individual. Utilitarianism would best fit if individuals who had an experience of two kinds of pleasures give their preferences without any moral obligation; this would help in deciding which act is preferable compared to another.

The theory of utilitarianism argues that if large populations of people prefer a certain act then the act should be accepted as being morally right, this does not hold true is some cases. Utilitarianism in some instances may cause complications in some cases whereby the accused needs to show evidence that the act committed was aimed at increasing his or her pleasure. As long as a certain course of action produces greatest amount of benefits to the people involved, utilitarianism does not care the means used to produce the benefits whether manipulation, lies or any form of coercion.

Utilitarianism provides a direct method in choosing which action would be morally right when faced in any situation. To find out the kind of action to take an individual will first look at all the possible courses of action then determine all the possible benefits and harms that are likely to arise from the actions. This means that utilitarianism allows an individual to take an action that causes less harm and has more benefits. The major problem with utilitarianism is that it does not consider justice and therefore it may fail where justice is highly considered.


Geoffrey S. 1996, Utilitarianism, London, Routledge Publishers, pp. 86-124 John S. M. 2004, Utilitarianism, Whitefish, Kessinger Publishing, pp. 14-38 Manuel V. , Claire A. , Thomas S. and Meyer J, 2009, Calculating consequences: The utilitarian approach to Ethics, Markula centre for applied ethics, available online from URL: http://www. scu. edu/ethics/practicing/decision/calculating. html, retrieved on 13th July 2009 at 15:42 Mill J. S. , 1964, utilitarianism, New York, Hayes Barton Press, pp. 23-28 Rosen F. (2003), Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill, London, Routledge Publishers, pp. 27-32

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