What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a theory used to explain consequentialism. The consequentialism theory states that one has to determine what is “intrinsically valuable” in an action.

The good in the action is what is focused on and not what it leads to. In regards to this theory, founded by Jeremy Bentham (18th century), and further developed by his protege, John Stuart Mill (19th century), the morality of an action is determinant with the benefit of hindsight. Bentham argues that the outcomes of an action are what determine whether it is good/bad or right/wrong. Bentham strongly believes that the “ends justify the means”. However, to this perception a question is posed, what is the end?

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Both Bentham and Mill agree that there is one intrinsic good (pleasure according to Bentham or happiness according to Mill) and one intrinsic bad (pain) according to Bentham or misery/unhappiness according to Mill. However, their agreeing on principle ends there as Bentham states that terming or referring to an action as good, has to have arisen from receiving pleasure from that action, and is mostly experienced in the physical sense.

This is just an echo of Socrates’ sentiments in Plato’s “Protagoras”. Mill disagrees with this perception that it turns utilitarianism into a “pig philosophy” and argues that quality of the action matters a lot. This is in disregard of Bentham’s thought that pleasure is the same qualitatively and the only thing that matters or is vital is quantity.

Utilitarianism tends to assume that happiness or pleasures found in humanity are equal across all people, for example: that one person’s well-being is not more important than any other one person’s. Consequently, its quest is to creating “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The theory thrives and succeeds on the actions that are able to create a balance between happiness and misery and this is therefore taken as the morally correct action.

Strengths and weaknesses

Utilitarianism gets its strength from its perception of actions and their impact on an individual. The ‘expected’ result of a specific action is the principle of measure and not the actual result itself. Utilitarianism has other strengths which include: impartiality- the theory asserts that everyone is equal and their happiness counts equally, it does not allow room for egoism and provides insight into Bentham’s notion. The theory also justifies most of our moral conventions. It is flexible, and offers for a larger moral community.

This theory falls short along the way, as questions come up to try and find an answer to the issue on morality. According to the theory of utilitarianism, if the morality of an action depends on its results, how do we know when the “results” are done? How can we thus know the answer? This ends up being a weakness in the whole theory and perception of utilitarians.

It could be simply explained that “expected” result of a particular action is the criteria, and not the “actual” result, but the followers of this theory are not in agreement with this. For that reason, this brings out a weakness where its own believers do not agree with it fully. It does not answer the question on morality, and as it is known, morality is a very vital aspect of the society and an individual.

A notable weakness of this theory is its assumption that the happiness or pleasure of each human being is equal to every other individual’s. Utilitarianism does not really address the issue of morality and what determines actions as good or bad. The ease at which Kantianism opposed Utilitarianism thinking in ethics and morality issues shows a huge weakness and lack of faith in this theory. Both this two theories form the two major “rules-based” approaches to ethical theory in the modern era.

In spite of this, Kant emphasizes on the form of an individual’s ethical reasoning, and argues that it must follow a certain rationality to ensure its rightness. On the other hand, according to utilitarians, the measure of the rightness or wrongness of an action could only be determined by the consequences of the action (greatest good for greatest number).

This greatly shows where the Utilitarianism theory falls short of adequately addressing ethics and morality within an individual. The theory leaves the determining of good or bad to the majority and the outcome of an action. Therefore the individual has no control of reasoning out what is good or bad.

Bentham/Mill debate: what/why

The theory of utilitarianism founded by Jeremy Bentham and further developed by his protege, John Stuart Mill comes across as the morality of an action is determinant with the benefit of hindsight and that reaction to an action determines whether it is good/bad or right/wrong. Although they both agree on the contextual basis of it, they have come out in disagreement on principle of what really is utilitarianism.

According to Bentham, the ends justify the means. On the other hand, Mill disagrees with Bentham and terms his philosophy on utilitarianism as a “pig philosophy”, according to him he prefers a state where an individual is “better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. His argument on this matter is driven by the fact that the level and intensity of happiness (referred to as pleasure by Bentham) is wholly driven by quality.

A disagreement occurs in this as Bentham is utterly convinced that what matters to an individual’s pleasure is only quantity and these pleasures are the same qualitatively in all individuals. The degree of measuring extent of pain or pleasure, happiness or misery and so forth is still indefinite and Bentham’s answer to this whether plausible or not does not shed any more light to the issue.

The disagreement between the two proponents of this theory leaves a question in our minds, is utilitarianism even practically feasible? Does the amount of deliberation on its impact, the problem of egoism and self-sacrifice and so forth answer the question on morality?

How then do we know that “happiness” or “pleasure” is the ultimate good? Mill tries to give insight to this by attesting that when an individual is asked what he/she wants in/out of life, it constantly comes down to happiness/pleasure, for that reason since every individual says that is what they want then they ought to get exactly that.

This puts into disrepute Bentham’s notion that happiness/pleasure is equal across all human beings and that the outcome of the action determines whether it is good/bad or right/wrong. Mill’s position on the theory of utilitarianism comes more superior to Bentham’s as he provides more explanation on what the intrinsic good is and morality within an individual.

Gene Hackman’s challenge: response

Is it justifiable killing one person to save others from suffering from cancer/find a cure?

Gene Hackman’s challenge on whether killing one person to save others from suffering from cancer and find a cure for them plays with what is right and what is bad. Bentham’s assertion that the outcome determines the right of deciding good or bad can be used to try and justify this. It is a question that tries to find a balance between ethics and morality within an individual, in the society.

Killing is out rightly wrong within the society and is not morally accepted. But the question is, does saving the lives of many justify sacrificing the life of one? Kant tries to offer insight into this debate by saying that the actions of an individual should be left to the individual’s own reasoning. Utilitarianism argues that the “ends justify the means”. But is it right?

The question of taking another person’s life is not justifiable in any way or form even if it is to save others. Laws have been put in place to put a check on the taking of life (killing), but there are instances where it is acceptable but still under very cautious circumstances. Hackman is faced with a question on his professionalism. Do professionalism and the oath sworn to uphold the ethical conduct of an individual have a play in reasoning and determining what is good or bad?

This leaves us asking ourselves whether the good of the many gives an individual the right to make choices on behalf of the group. In my opinion killing one to save many is not justifiable and goes against ethical and morality aspect in the society. But yet again all this is left to the reasoning of the individual to decide what is good and what is bad.

Many people argue that saving the lives of many innocent people justifies the act of taking life, but yet again the life being taken is innocent and they have a choice of whether to give into the cause or hold onto their life.

The choice of taking a life should not be given to someone to decide for an individual but rather to the individual it belongs to. In this way the good and feeling of pleasure is obtained by an individual as he/she has been left to reason on the impact of their worth to the society. Consequentialism tries to justify the taking of life but Kantianism argues against this and puts the decision solely in the hands of an individual.


The concept of sustainable development is an attempt to balance two
moral demands placed on the environment. The first demand is for development,
including economic development or growth. It arises mainly from the interests
of people who live in developing countries. Their present poverty gives them a
low quality of life and calls urgently for steps to improve their quality of
life. The second demand is for sustainability, for ensuring that we do not risk
the future in the sake of gains in the present. This arises from the interests
of people in the future who will need access to a reasonable quality of life,
non-renewable resources, unspoiled wilderness, and a healthy biosphere. These
two moral demands do conflict. In fact, economic growth is the prime source of
threats to the natural environment.

We have a rough sense of what a good quality of life for humans consists
of. Also, we can make some rough judgments about when a person’s quality of
life has increased or decreased. Utilitarianism about future generations says
that people should weigh these increases impartially with respect to times. And,
in particular, should not prefer a smaller increase in the present well-being to
larger increases in the future. We should try to maximize the sum of increases
in well-being across times counting future lives equally against those in the
present. Our moral goal should always be to produce the greatest total of such
gains, no matter by whom they are enjoyed.

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Utilitarianism has been extensively discussed by philosophers, and many
objections have been raised against it. Two objections are especially relevant
here. First, utilitarianism is an extremely, even excessively demanding moral
view for most humans. If we have a duty always to bring about the best outcome,
than any time we can increase the well-being of others (which is just about at
any time), we have a moral duty to do so. There is no moral time off, no moral
relaxation, nor is there a moral holiday. Humans are always duty bound to
sacrificing something for the benefit of others at a given time. Second,
utilitarianism can favor unequal distributions of well-being. In particular, it
can impose severe deprivations on the few for the sake of gains for the many.

Given its interpretations of impartiality, utilitarianism will count the
deprivations of the few as a moral cost. But, if they produce benefits for
enough people, this cost will be outweighed. Even a severe inequality can be
balanced out and approved of by a utilitarian.

Some philosophers, feeling the force of these objections, have proposed
replacing utilitarianism about future generations with an egalitarian view.

This view cares not just about the sum of benefits across generations, but also
about their equitable distribution. We do not sacrifice the worst-off
generation for better-off generations, but aim at equality of conditions among
them. This egalitarian view can take many forms, but a good version has been
proposed by Brian Barry. He says that each generation has a duty to pass on to
its successors a total range of resources and opportunities that is at least as
good as its own.1 Those generations that enjoy favorable conditions of life
must pass on similar circumstances of life to their future. However,
generations that are less fortunate have no such stringent obligations. What is
required of each generation is that it just pass on a total package of
opportunities that is comparable to its own; whatever the exact composition of
that package may be. Barry’s approach to the egalitarian view can easily be
interpreted as an ethic of outcomes. Assuming this interpretation, is the
egalitarian view the best of our duty concerning future generations? There
seems to be one major objection against Berry’s view.

Brian Barry’s egalitarian view does not place excessive demands on early
generations to make sacrifices for the sake of later generations. That is
because it places no such demands-early generations need do nothing at all for
later generations. Surely early generations have some duty to enable their
successors to live better than themselves. An ideal of sustainability, or of a
constant level of well-being through time, may be attractive to think of when
starting from a high level of well-being. But, it is not so attractive when
starting from a low level of well-being. There is nothing inspiring about a
consistently maintained level of misery. Yet Barry’s view allows consistent
misery to persist. It finds nothing objectionable in a sequence where the first
generation passes on a very limited range of opportunities and resources to the
next generation, and so on. Surely


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