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What are the key concepts of utilitarianism?

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    Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) developed his ethical system of utilitarianism around the idea of pleasure. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) later furthered and many believe he improved Bentham’s theory (Mill is often linked to Rule Utilitarianism) but still followed many of his original ideas. The theory is based on ancient hedonism, which pursued physical pleasure and avoided physical pain. Hedonism saw human beings as “Under the governance of two sovereign masters of pain and pleasure.” So a key concept that Bentham developed was the belief we are controlled by the desire to seek out pleasure and avoid pain bringing about the greatest happiness principle which is choosing the path that gives the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of happiness and the least amount of pain. This makes the theory eudaimonic.

    This is measured using the hedonic calculus that takes into account 7 things; Intensity of happiness, Duration of the happiness (how long it lasts), Remoteness of the happiness (how immediate the gratification is), Certainty of the happiness happening, Purity of the happiness (how free from pain it is), Richness of the happiness (will it lead to more pleasure) and finally the extent of the happiness (how far it will reach). For example helping an old woman across the road, the happiness is immediate and pure however it is not that rich or far reaching and is fairly short term but this would still be deemed a good act as it gives the greatest amount of happiness to the situation. During his time Bentham was influenced by the enlightenment where the emphasis was on science so using the hedonic calculus reflects this as it is empirical and therefor measureable. Empiricism brought it to be a consequentialist/teleological theory so it is the outcomes that matter not the motive because motives cannot be measured so they cannot be a part of a moral system. The influence of enlightenment can also be seen by the fact that it is a secular theory so this means that Christians can no longer be seen as more moral than other people.

    A sense of democracy was forged by the effects of such things as the American war of independence and the French Revolution where they fought for “Liberté, égalité and fraternité” and “No taxation without representation”. So utilitarian’s believe that everyone’s pleasure counts equally.

    It is also a relativist/situational theory so it can be used for every situation making it a very flexible theory which is useful in today’s society to judge such things as genetic engineering. However Bentham rejected natural law from utilitarianism because he saw it as “nonsense on stilts”. Mill argued that lower and higher pleasures should be taken into account as it was said “It is better to be unhappy Socrates than a happy pig”

    Bentham’s theory is often referred to as act utilitarianism as it centralises around the idea that you must decide on the action that will lead to the greatest good in the situation you face. Whereas Mill’s version of the theory is frequently linked to Rule utilitarianism which follows the belief rules should be formed using utilitarian principles for the benefit of society protecting intrinsic goods.

    There are many forms of modern utilitarianism (Ideal, Negative, Preference etc.) that have been developed as it can be found that Bentham and Mills form of Utilitarianism is too subjective. Moore promoted his idea of ‘Ideal Utilitarianism’ where he argued that truth, beauty and love are just as important as happiness. Moore challenged the democratic views of utilitarianism by arguing that if a majority was to go against truth, beauty and love then their acts should be classed as wrong. Popper also argued that to promote happiness was too idealistic and impractical so he invented negative utilitarianism which aims to minimise misery.

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