Some of the eighteenth century English moralists, including Butler and Shaftesbury, stressed the naturalness of benevolence or of seeking the good of others and of its place in the moral life and Hutcheson actually stated that the objective or ‘material end’ of good conduct is ‘the greatest happiness for the numbers’, the phrase that came to be the motto of English Utilitarianism. The great leaders of this school at its prosperous period, the beginning of the nineteenth century, were Bentham, James Mill, and his son, John Stuart Mill. If these moralists had merely argued for a purely hedonistic theory of ethics, maintaining that pleasure is the sole good, their theory might not have met with such general acceptance.
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Attributed with the fundamentals of utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham and afterward, John Stuart Mill. They are often referenced together; however, each had opposed viewpoints on more than a few aspects of the theory. Bentham was more basic in his image of utility, focusing on the primal human instincts of making the most of pleasure and avoiding pain. He promoted a scheme called the “hedonic calculus”. In this method, one could algebraically decide the right choice by setting the potential positive outcomes and negative consequences of an action against another.
Bentham was comfortable equating the pleasure of a game of pushpin to that of reading poetry; Mill was choosier, articulating hierarchies of pleasures depending upon their scholarly value.
Utilitarianism is based on two sets of premises, the axiomatic truths of egoistic hedonism on one side, and the principles of benevolence and equity on the other side. A man’s dedication to the pursuit of general happiness is the best means of achieving happiness for him so reconciliation between egoistic hedonism and utilitarianism maybe possible upon recognition that another person’s happiness is of identical value to one’s own.
Mill believed that the most ethical action was that which brought the most people the greatest amount of happiness. Happiness, according to Mill, is “pleasure and the absence of pain,” and unhappiness is “pain, and the privation of pleasure.”
The crux of Mill’s ethical theory is his Greatest Happiness Principle, according to which “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Every human being tries to promote his or her own happiness, and avoid unhappiness, which is natural rather than ethical however promoting happiness becomes an ethical theory when applied to all human beings, rather than just individuals.
Utility is defined as maximizing pleasure over pain, According to Mill, human pleasures are much superior to animalistic ones: once people are made aware of their higher faculties, they will never be happy to leave them uncultivated; thus happiness is a sign that we are exercising our higher faculties. It is true that some pleasures may be “base”; however, this does not mean that all of them are: rather, some are intrinsically more valuable than others. When making a moral judgment on an action, utilitarianism thus takes into account not just the quantity, but also the quality of the pleasures resulting from. A pleasure is of higher quality if people would choose it over a different pleasure even if it is accompanied by discomfort, and if they would not trade it for a greater amount of the other pleasure. Moreover, Mill contends, it is an “unquestionable fact” that, given equal access to all kinds of pleasures, people will prefer those that appeal to their “higher” faculties.
The people best qualified to judge a pleasure’s quality are people who have experienced both the higher and the lower. Furthermore, Mill observed that even if the possession of a “noble character” brought less happiness to the individual, society would still benefit. Mill also argues that people’s achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living, should be counted as part of their happiness.
Since the utilitarian’s standard for judging an act is the happiness of all people, not of the agent alone, thus, a person must not value his own happiness over the happiness of others; and law and education help to instill this generosity in individuals. However, this does not mean that people’s motives must only be to serve the greatest good; indeed utilitarianism is not concerned with the motives behind an action; the morality of an action depends on the goodness of its result only. Moreover, in most aspects of everyday life, a person will not be affecting large numbers of other people, and thus need not consider his or her actions in relation to the good of all, but only to the good of those involved. It is only the people who work in the public sphere and affect many other people who must think about public utility on a regular basis.
Utilitarianism’s sanctions (internal and external),a feeling for humanity, are based on natural human sentiments, which the proper system of education could nurture. In order to show that happiness is the sole criterion for morality, it is necessary to show that people never desire anything but happiness. Mill says that people do desire things like virtue, which in common language is distinguished from happiness. However, Mill states that people love virtue only because it constitutes a part of happiness. Mill argues that happiness is not an abstract idea, but a whole with component parts. Because virtue is a part of happiness, and promotes the general happiness, utilitarianism encourages the development of virtue.
Act Utilitarianism holds that actions should be judged directly according to their consequences for happiness while rule utilitarians are in favor of the principle that actions should be judged according to rules which, if followed, will have consequences conducive to the greater happiness.
Contrary to the impression Bentham’s and Mill’s highlighting upon pleasure may give, utilitarianism does not imply or endorse an egotistical approach to life. Bentham says, “Each is to count for one and no one for more than one.” i.e. my own pleasures and pains and those of others are to be calculated and compared exactly on a par. Utilitarian(s) insist that everyone’s welfare should be treated as equal. This ensures that utilitarianism is not an egotistical doctrine.
Neither is utilitarianism altruistic, i.e. it does allow us to be concerned with our own welfare, though not to the exclusion of others’, an attitude of generalized benevolence.
The statement that pleasure is the only thing that is desirable commits a naturalistic fallacy. Desirable means what ‘ought’ to be desired ‘cannot’ be defined in terms of what men desire and that men actually desire it is no proof of a thing being desirable
To infer from the statement that each person’s happiness is a good to each particular person, the conclusion that the general happiness is good to the whole number of persons, commits the fallacy of composition.
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