How Well Do You Know Utilitarianism?

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What is the basic idea behind utilitarianism?

To maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals

Which of the following is NOT a criticism of utilitarianism?

Considering only individual happiness

What is consequentialism?

The idea that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong

What is the difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism?

Act utilitarianism focuses on likely results while rule utilitarianism prioritizes following rules

Who founded the utilitarian philosophy?

Jeremy Bentham

What is negative utilitarianism?

The focus on minimizing pain rather than maximizing pleasure

What is two-level utilitarianism?

A distinction between a more specific form of rule utilitarianism used for critical moral thinking and a more general form used for moral education

What is ideal utilitarianism?

A rejection of the purely hedonistic view of utilitarianism and an argument that other values should also be maximized

What is preference utilitarianism?

A focus on fulfilling the preferences of individuals as the ultimate criterion for what is good and bad

Study Notes

Utilitarianism: An Ethical Theory Based on Maximizing Well-being

  • Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy that prescribes actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals.

  • The basic idea behind utilitarianism is 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.

  • Utilitarianism considers the interests of all sentient beings equally, unlike other forms of consequentialism.

  • There is disagreement as to whether actions should be chosen based on their likely results (act utilitarianism) or whether agents should conform to rules that maximize utility (rule utilitarianism).

  • Utilitarianism has been applied towards social welfare economics, questions of justice, the crisis of global poverty, the ethics of raising animals for food, and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity.

  • 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.

  • Benthamism, the utilitarian philosophy founded by Jeremy Bentham, was substantially modified by his successor, John Stuart Mill, who popularized the term utilitarianism.

  • Forms of hedonism were put forward by Aristippus and Epicurus; Aristotle argued that eudaimonia is the highest human good; and Augustine wrote that "all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness."

  • Bentham's book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, was printed in 1780 but not published until 1789.

  • Mill rejects a purely quantitative measurement of utility and argues that some pleasures are intrinsically better than others.

  • Mill argues that the pleasures of the intellect are intrinsically superior to physical pleasures.Overview of Utilitarianism and its Developments

  • Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory that posits that the best action is one that maximizes overall happiness or pleasure.

  • John Stuart Mill is a prominent utilitarian philosopher who believed that intellectual pursuits are the key to achieving happiness, while petty pleasures do not offer significant value.

  • Mill's proof for the principle of utility has been the subject of debate, with some critics alleging that he committed fallacies in his reasoning.

  • Henry Sidgwick's book, The Methods of Ethics, is considered the peak of classical utilitarianism, and he argued that ethics is about objectively determining which actions are right based on common-sense morality.

  • Ideal utilitarianism, which was first proposed by Hastings Rashdall and popularized by G.E. Moore, rejects the purely hedonistic view of utilitarianism and argues that other values should also be maximized.

  • Act and rule utilitarianism are two forms of utilitarianism that differ in what determines whether an action is right - act utilitarianism maximizes utility for each individual action, while rule utilitarianism prioritizes following rules that maximize utility.

  • Two-level utilitarianism, proposed by R.M. Hare, distinguishes between a more specific form of rule utilitarianism used for critical moral thinking and a more general form used for moral education.

  • Preference utilitarianism, proposed by John Harsanyi, focuses on fulfilling the preferences of individuals as the ultimate criterion for what is good and bad.

  • Negative utilitarianism, proposed by Karl Popper, posits that the focus should be on minimizing pain rather than maximizing pleasure, and some versions include the exclusion of antisocial preferences.Criticisms of Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarianism is not a single theory, but a cluster of related theories that have been developed over two hundred years.

  • One common objection to utilitarianism is the inability to quantify, compare, or measure happiness or well-being.

  • Critics argue that act utilitarianism is not concerned about having rules, which can lead to punishing an innocent person for the greater good.

  • Act utilitarianism requires everyone to do what they can to maximize utility, but this combination of requirements leads to utilitarianism making unreasonable demands.

  • The aggregation of utility becomes futile as both pain and happiness are intrinsic to and inseparable from the consciousness in which they are felt, rendering impossible the task of adding up the various pleasures of multiple individuals.

  • Another criticism of utilitarianism is that it ignores our special obligations, such as saving our mother over two random people.

  • Utilitarianism's assertion that well-being is the only thing with intrinsic moral value has been attacked by various critics.

  • An argument for moving to some form of motive utilitarianism at the personal level is that applying carefully selected rules at the social level and encouraging appropriate motives at the personal level is likely to lead to a better overall outcome.

  • Motive utilitarianism has the utility calculus being used to select motives and dispositions according to their general felicific effects, and those motives and dispositions then dictate our choices of actions.

  • Right action, by act-utilitarian standards, and right motivation, by motive-utilitarian standards, are incompatible in some cases.

  • Some argue that it is impossible to do the calculation that utilitarianism requires because consequences are inherently unknowable.

  • One possible response to the problem of the demandingness objection is to accept its demands. Another approach is to drop the demand that utility be maximized.Critiques of Utilitarianism

  • Karl Marx criticises Bentham's utilitarianism for not recognising that people have different joys in different socioeconomic contexts.

  • Pope John Paul II criticises utilitarianism for making persons, just as much as things, the object of use.

  • W. D. Ross criticises utilitarianism for ignoring other duties, such as the duty to keep one's promises or to make amends for wrongful acts.

  • Roger Scruton criticises utilitarianism for not giving duty the place that it needs inside our ethical judgements.

  • Jacqueline Laing argues that utilitarianism has insufficient conceptual apparatus to comprehend the very idea of innocence, a feature central to any comprehensive ethical theory.

  • Henry Sidgwick asks whether it is total or average happiness that we seek to make a maximum.

  • Derek Parfit argues that using total happiness falls victim to the repugnant conclusion, whereby large numbers of people with very low but non-negative utility values can be seen as a better goal than a population of a less extreme size living in comfort.

  • William Shaw suggests that the problem of average versus total happiness can be avoided if a distinction is made between potential people, who need not concern us, and actual future people, who should concern us.

  • Bentham distinguishes motive from intention and says that motives are not in themselves good or bad but can be referred to as such on account of their tendency to produce pleasure or pain.

  • Mill says that "motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent."

  • Peter Singer argues that the well-being of all sentient beings ought to be given equal consideration.

  • An article in the American Economic Journal has addressed the issue of Utilitarian ethics within redistribution of wealth.

Test your knowledge of Utilitarianism, an ethical theory focused on maximizing well-being and happiness for all affected individuals. This quiz will cover the history and development of utilitarianism, its different forms, and criticisms of the theory. See how much you know about this influential philosophy and its impact on various fields, from social welfare economics to animal rights.

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