Utilitarianism

4th December 2022 0 By indiafreenotes

In ethical philosophy, utilitarianism is a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals.

Although different varieties of utilitarianism admit different characterizations, the basic idea behind all of them is, in some sense, to maximize utility, which is often defined in terms of well-being or related concepts.

Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. Unlike other forms of consequentialism, such as egoism and altruism, utilitarianism considers the interests of all sentient beings equally. Proponents of utilitarianism have disagreed on a number of issues, such as whether actions should be chosen based on their likely results (act utilitarianism), or whether agents should conform to rules that maximize utility (rule utilitarianism). There is also disagreement as to whether total utility (total utilitarianism), average utility (average utilitarianism) or the utility of the people worst-off should be maximized.

Though the seeds of the theory can be found in the hedonists Aristippus and Epicurus, who viewed happiness as the only good, and in the work of the medieval Indian philosopher Śāntideva, the tradition of modern utilitarianism began with Jeremy Bentham, and continued with such philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, and Peter Singer. The concept has been applied towards social welfare economics, the crisis of global poverty, the ethics of raising animals for food, and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity.

Criticisms of utilitarian value theory

Utilitarianism’s assertion that well-being is the only thing with intrinsic moral value has been attacked by various critics. Thomas Carlyle derided “Benthamee Utility, virtue by Profit and Loss; reducing this God’s-world to a dead brute Steam-engine, the infinite celestial Soul of Man to a kind of Hay-balance for weighing hay and thistles on, pleasures and pains on”. Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, criticises Bentham’s utilitarianism on the grounds that it does not appear to recognise that people have different joys in different socioeconomic contexts.

With the driest naivete he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. The Christian religion, e.g., is “useful,” “because it forbids in the name of religion the same faults that the penal code condemns in the name of the law.” Artistic criticism is “harmful,” because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, etc. With such rubbish has the brave fellow, with his motto, “nulla dies sine linea [no day without a line]”, piled up mountains of books.

Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. It is the only moral framework that can be used to justify military force or war. It is also the most common approach to moral reasoning used in business because of the way in which it accounts for costs and benefits.

However, because we cannot predict the future, it’s difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad. This is one of the limitations of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism also has trouble accounting for values such as justice and individual rights.  For example, assume a hospital has four people whose lives depend upon receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, a kidney, and a liver. If a healthy person wanders into the hospital, his organs could be harvested to save four lives at the expense of one life. This would arguably produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But few would consider it an acceptable course of action, let alone the most ethical one.

So, although utilitarianism is arguably the most reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, it has obvious limitations.