Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which acts as a guideline on how people should act in certain situations and was first introduced by a hedonist (pursuer of pleasure) named Jeremy Bentham who put forward the ‘Principle of Utility’ which said “The greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Utilitarianism is a theory which bases on the end purpose (teleological) of achieving pleasure, our decisions should be based on consequences in pursuit of the principle of utility (consequentialist) and is a theory which judges each situation independently (relativistic).
Jeremy Bentham was the first contributor and developer for Utilitarianism and was most famous for his version of ‘Act’ Utilitarianism which focused applying the Principle of utility to each individual act to each unique situation. Bentham believed that happiness was the first thing to consider when making a decision, and our pleasure helped us achieve the most happiness. Bentham said that ‘Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure and it is them that will determine what we ought to do’ meaning the right moral decision will come about through the considerations of pleasure and pain.
He devised the ‘Hedonic calculus’ (hedonic meaning pleasure) which was a piece of apparatus which helped him quantify happiness. The Hedonic calculus holds seven aspects which need to be considered: Duration (How long the pleasure will last), Remoteness (How close is the happiness), Purity (How free from pain is the pleasure), Richness (How likely will the pleasure lead to more happiness), Intensity (How strong the pleasure is), Certainty (How sure the act will produce happiness) and Extent (Will other people be affected by the pleasure).
It’s these factors which a person must consider and weigh up in terms of pain and pleasure in order to find the most moral and ethical decision to make, if the calculus totals up in more pain over pleasure then this defines it as the wrong choice to make. Bentham says that you must choose the act which maximises the amount of pleasure for the most amounts of people to ensure happiness. Bentham believed that all people were entitled to happiness, and thus each to count as one and no-one as more than one.
However, there were many obvious faults in this theory; for example, eating a chocolate bar is subjective to people who like and dislike chocolate therefore not every action has equal pleasure and pain for every person. John Stuart Mill, a fellow colleague of Jeremy Bentham criticised him for developing a ‘Swine theory’ as it encouraged people to be selfish and recognizes no higher purpose for life other than the mere pursuit of pleasure. Mill was concerned that one person’s unhappiness could be entirely overlooked if the majority were happy.
Unlike Bentham, Mill focused on differentiating the quality of pleasure and thus introduced a new theory of utility called ‘Rule’ Utilitarianism which acted as a general guideline that achieved happiness without discriminating. Mill’s definition of happiness was tended to the spiritual and culture side rather than just physical. He distinguished between Higher and lower pleasures, higher pleasures were in pleasures in tune with the mind such as reading and poetry and lower pleasures tended to physical needs to do with the body like sex and eating.
Mill stated that lower pleasures are more easily accomplishable and thus have to be completed before satisfying the intellectual needs of the mind. He famously wrote ‘It is better to be a human satisfied than a pig satisfied, it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’ this meant that humans were able to feel much more rewarding emotions far above the magnitude of the feelings of the pig, regardless of dissatisfaction. Two types of rule utilitarianism have been identified in modern times, strong rule and weak rule utilitarian.
Each still focuses on the application of a general rule to achieve happiness, but strong rule utilitarianism defines the rule as absolute and must not be broken, an example of this is ‘Do not kill’ which is created through the principle of utility. Weak rule utilitarianism offers a person the choice to break certain rules in order to achieve the greater good as an exception, for example the rule of ‘Do not kill’ could be broken if the opportunity to kill Hitler to prevent more pain from occurring.