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The Beneficial Characteristics of Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism

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Utilitarianism was developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) as he was interested in social reform because of how the industrial revolution left few people rich and many people poor and susceptible to disease from the poor living conditions. Bentham’s theory took the name ‘Act’ Utilitarianism an important feature of Utilitarianism id that it is based on the principle of Utility. This is a term which was originally coined by Francis Hutcheson “the greatest good for the greatest number” and used by Bentham to be made into a key principle for a fully developed ethical theory. An important feature of Utilitarianism is that it is act centred, this means the theory focuses on the moral worth of an action over the worth of a person’s character. Each action is judged on its ability to bring the greatest good (happiness) for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is a relativistic theory meaning the right or wrong of an action depends on its ability to bring the greatest good in any given situation. For example, Euthanasia may produce great amounts of happiness in one situation.

Furthermore, an important feature of Utilitarianism is a consequentialist (teleological) theory meaning the moral worth of an action is judged by its consequences. Actions have instrumental values as they provide the means for acquiring more happiness than an action of intrinsic value. This is seen through how Bentham suggested “the principle of utility judges any action to be right by the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interests are in question” further showing how in Utilitarianism each action should be done with a consequence of the highest possible happiness and lowest amount of pain in order to be seen as good. Act Utilitarianism focuses on the quantity of pleasure produced by an action.

Moreover, an important feature of Utilitarianism is that it is a hedonistic (pleasure seeking) theory. Bentham defined good as happiness/pleasure so the right action is maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Utilitarianism focuses on an idea that as human beings, we strive for pleasure and the avoidance of pain as can be suggested by his quote “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do”. In order to quantify the amount of pain and pleasure an action produces in order to determine whether it is good or not by devising the Hedonic Calculus. This is a decision making process made up of 7 key principles one of which is extent, which is the number of people affected by an action. Another is duration, which is how long the pleasure lasts.

J.S. Mill (1806-1873) developed Bentham’s theory which took the name Rule Utilitarianism. An important feature of Utilitarianism is that Mill believed the well being of individuals as the greatest importance and that happiness is most effectively gained when people are free to peruse their own ends, subject to rules which protect the common good of all. Mill suggested that society should follow a set of basic rules based on Utilitarian principles. By following a standard set of rules, individuals can judge whether specific acts are acceptable. The idea of higher and lower pleasure followed Mill’s Rule utilitarianism. Mill believed higher pleasures are those of the mind such as listening to music and lower pleasure being those of the body such as sex or eating. In order for human beings to get the most out of life, we should strive for higher pleasures. As mill suggested “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” which emphasises the idea that we should try and achieve higher levels of pleasure. Rule utilitarianism is contrasted with Act as it focuses on the quality of a pleasure rather than the quantity of a pleasure.

Another important feature of Utilitarianism is that a different form was created called Preference Utilitarianism. This form of utilitarianism was developed by Peter Singer who believed moral actions are right or wrong depending on the preference of those involved. Singer suggested “an action contrary to the preference of any being is unless outweighed by the preferences of other beings, wrong” which focuses on still maximising utility with an emphasis on preference. Preference utilitarianism places equal consideration to all beings capable of rational thought. This includes animals as some animals have the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Differently, Preference utilitarianism does not stress seeking an option which increases pleasure and diminishes pain but instead look for the best interests of those involved.

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