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If someone had to choose between killing an evil dictator, or saving the life of a single child, which option should that person pick? Utilitarian’s believe that we should make our predictions with the thought of everyone, not just ourselves. So even though both options produce good, a utilitarian would choose the one the produces the most good. They would choose to kill the evil dictator, because this option would save many more lives than just one.
Even though we do not know for sure what the outcome would be if they shoot the evil dictator, it is to our understanding that this would prevent the most bad. However, it is not impossible that the dictator could have a change of heart, thus ceasing all evil behavior. If this were to be the outcome, then saving the child’s life would have been the better option. The person shooting has no idea of knowing this however, so their initial decision would still be praised by utilitarian’s. John Stuart Mill said, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”
Utilitarianism provides an approach that establishes universal standards, providing clear guidance for all. It supports the notion that human wellbeing is generally good, so in turn it basically teaches us to treat others as you would have them treat you. This is good guidance for a society to follow, because everyone is thinking of the greater good, rather than for their own selfish motivations. It is not an overly complicated theory, it’s straightforward and based on the single principle of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure and happiness. Although these are some good strengths, Utilitarianism is not without its weaknesses.
Once again, you can never know all the consequences of your actions. Going back to the scenario from earlier, I mentioned the possibility that the evil dictator could have a change of heart. If for whatever reason the person chooses to save the child’s life instead, what if that child then grew up to be just as evil as the dictator? This is an issue with Utilitarianism, there is no clear answer that our predictions will provide the most good. The theory can also advocate injustice. Say an innocent man is convicted guilty for a crime he did not commit, and just because the city needed someone to blame, they convict him to calm riots. The people are upset at the crime, thus start riots, but once the evil doer is convicted, the riots stop. Even though the person being convicted is innocent, his conviction produced the most good when the riots were stopped as a result.
There are many more strengths and weaknesses to the theory, but generally Utilitarianism is choosing whatever solution promotes the pleasure or happiness of the greatest number of people. It is a theory that has an eye for the greater good, or an attempt to avoid selfish thoughts and motives, and to instead progress and promote a healthy society. The theory came-to in a time where there was very little of this, and played a role in the social reform of London during the Industrial Revolution. Conditions at the time were terrible, but these conditions inspired people like Bentham to be an agent of social reform. It is important to understand that this theory takes in favor of everyone’s happiness equally. This is unlike egoists, who claim that a person should only maximize their own happiness, rather than that of all others. They believe if doing something bad makes us happy, it is good to do something bad. Utilitarian’s do not place their own happiness above that of others. They want to make the world a better place, increase social justice, or promote the general welfare.
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