Utilitarianism and Greatest Net Happiness

We are taught that for every action, there is a reaction. The actions that a Utilitarian takes are aimed at achieving the greatest net happiness for all. We can’t always make everyone happy all of the time, so the next best thing is to make as many people happy as is possible. Therefore, utilitarian theory is more concerned with the happiness of society rather than the individual.

The Utilitarian movement developed rational principals to guide peoples’ moral choices. For instance, actions are considered to be right when they promote happiness, and wrong when pain, suffering, and evil are promoted. They call this the greatest happiness principle. Wherein, the sole criterion for an action is the actions consequence.

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Rule and Act Utilitarianism are separated in theory because they are the creation of modern philosophers, and were never recognized by either of the pioneers, Benthom or Mill. Rule deals with the morality of an actions classification such as stealing or keeping promises. These people in general will follow the rule that brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Act is more concerned with the moral actions that are not naturally inherited. Lying, steeling, torturing, or killing can be justified by Act utilitarian’s if it is the best means to maximize happiness “Hitler”. They judge actions on the basis of its utility rather than follow set rules. In contrast, Rule-utilitarians insist in following the rules even if it means more pain is caused than pleasure.

In 1789, Jeremy Benthom was a social reformer that rote a book called Principals of Morals and Legislation. During this period of history, the world went from a majority of people earning their livelihood through agricultural to the industrial revolution. As the workers became dependent
on their employers, the employers began abusing child labor. This created poverty among the working class and the creation of wide spread urban slums. Benthom developed his utilitarian theory in response to the poor and exploited workers of the time.

Benthom lived through the American and French revolutions and witnessed the passing of the reform bill, which gave the right to vote to the middle class citizens. He believed in a bottom up approach, which suggested that the happiness begins with the people of a society, rather than imposing morality and social ideals upon them from above. On a more recent note, these are the exact types of things that we are seeing unfold in the affordable health care act right now. He also developed The Utilitarian Calculus as a means of deciding morally preferable action or policy. There are seven factors of consideration that make up this calculation, (Ethics For Life, Judith Boss pages 274 – 275.)

1) Intensity involves the strength of the pain or pleasure. “pleasure to positive, and pain to negative values”. 2) Duration refers to the length of time that the pleasure or pain lasts. “Pleasure to long duration, and pain to short duration is always desirable”. 3) Certainty refers to the probability that the pain or pleasure will occur. 4) Propinquity or nearness in time, is related to certainty. 5) Fecundity means that the pleasure is productive of more pleasure. 6) Purity entails pleasure that does not cause pain at the same time 7) Extent refers to the number of sentient beings affected by the action.

Bentham had a profound influence on John Stuart Mill. Benthom became absorbed in the education of Mill when he was very young. Mill never associated with children of his own age until the age of fourteen. He was always around his father and others of that age. He was fearful of his father, and stated that his education was not of love, but of fear. At the age of twenty, Mill suffered an emotional breakdown and slipped into a two year depression that eventually unleashed him from the hold of his father. He blamed the depression partially on the habit of analysis that he claimed had a tendency to wear away at ones feelings.

Mill met and became a life long friend of a brilliant Harriet Taylor. When her husband later died, he married her. She was another influence on the way Mill thought and on his radical reformulation of Bentham’s theory. Mill wrote a well known book On Liberty that he claimed was a joint production with Harriet. He consulted all of his works with her.

Mill became a member of parliament in 1858. After contracting a fever in 1873 he died suddenly.
Mill held Bentham at a high level, but later realized that there was criticism that Bentham always failed to do what he had never really set out to do in the first place. Bentham’s contributions were enormous and Mill said that they should never be overlooked just to point out the deficiencies in his theory.

Mill believed that education helped in overcoming ignorance, which he says is one of the main causes of unhappiness. He was opposed to state schooling though. His theory on state education was that it only molds you to be exactly like one another. Mill, like Aristotle, maintained that life of a human is qualitatively better than other animals. He cams that; if we had the choice of choosing between two pleasures, we have the capacity to choose rationally, unlike other animals. He also concluded that people who choose the lessor of two pleasures do so out of ignorance and superstition.

Utilitarianism requires strict impartiality. This is as is stated in “The Golden Rule.” Do to and for others, as you would have them do to and for you. This seems to be the basis of Mills principles. He was a natural utilitarian that was groomed to know no other way. It is too bad for the world of ethics that he died so suddenly. His ability to overcome his depression and become such an influential figure among the greatest philosophers and minds throughout history is incredible.

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