Utilitarianism is an ethical system which pre-supposes we are have some degree of freedom and responsibility for our actions. [i.e. it is not hard determinist]
It is non-relativist in that - although not absolutist - one is obliged to perform ‘right’ action ; one has a duty to perform those acts which promote greater utility.
Utility may be defined as that which is useful, beneficial , increases pleasure or happiness, diminishes pain or suffering.
Unlike deontological forms of ethics , Utilitarianism is teleological and consequentialist ; in that it is concerned solely with the justification/moral worth of an act by its ends and consequences ; not its means, motives or intentions.
At the dawn of the Industrial revolution, and post the American and French revolutions, [where social injustice, inequality and the rights of the majority became significant social and political concerns ] ;
Jeremy Bentham concluded; and subsequently adopted the principle that:
“Right actions are those which produce the greatest pleasures for those affected by their consequences ; wrong actions are those which do not.”
In order to assess and determine a standard for judging personal and private action [it‘s rightness dependant upon its ‘Utility‘ or usefulness ] ; Bentham introduced the hedonic calculus to calculate the most pleasurable and least painful action :
The action’s :
d] propinquity [nearness] vs. its remoteness.
e] fecundity [the chances of there being further pleasures]
f] purity [the chances of there being less further pain]
With this process one could be able to ascertain right action by quantifying happiness.
Yet within this system lie two major difficulties:
a] The inability to determine or predict one or more of the factors within the hedonic calculus.
b] a danger of narcissistic self-gratification and indulgence ; which John Stuart Mill considered a ‘wallowing in lower pleasures’.
Thus Mill introduced the principle that utilitarianism’s primary moral concern should be towards the quality rather than quantity of the act ; and should aspire to the higher-order goods such as art, culture and intellectual/social improvement.
Mill also considered that personal autonomy , when it affected solely the private individual and had no influence on society ; was not within any remit for the social majority to either influence or legislate against. The harm principle dictates that the majority may only act against the will of the individual if it is to protect and prevent harm to others.
Utilitarianism’s strengths include its consideration for that which actually affects others - the consequences of an action ; where the intention and motive may be irrelevant or ambivalent .
It also takes into consideration that circumstances change and there must consequently be an alteration within the ethical judgment and determination. There is no [potentially cruel and unjust] inflexible categorical imperative.
Utilitarianism is a communal ethical system where the benefits to society become paramount.
What is important is human well-being and their happiness here-and-now ; not in some future metaphysical and possibly non-existent ‘Heaven’. The greatest good for the greatest number is an obviously good ideal and needs no reliance upon religion or legal system to validate it.
The principle promotes a democratic voting system wherein the majority [which includes the weak, poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised] have a voice in the decision making rather than some influential minority [e.g. church or aristocracy].
Utilitarianism’s fundamental weakness is that it is too simplistic in nature ; giving no consideration to either means or motive .
It is also always predictive in nature ; the consequences of an action being indeterminate ; even though experience may provide some guidance ; there is no guarantee that the consequences will correspond to the intention towards them.
There is also no guarantee that the wishes of the majority are right.
There is also the difficulty in that as utilitarianism insists that it is solely the consequences of an action which provide ethical worth ; potentially any action , providing it brings about beneficial consequences ; can be justified.
There is also no credit given towards that which human beings generally naturally judge a person’s character : their motive and intention behind the action.
Utilitarianism comes directly into conflict with concepts of universal human rights and justice as there is no inherent 'right or wrong', actions have only instrumental value, and motives towards a consequence are neither 'good nor bad' merely morally neutral ; if people are required to be used as means to an end to produce greater utility - that action is justified - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
It also makes no allowance for human relationships and requires that one should adopt a clinical, cold and possibly callous assessment of a situation - any appeal to sentimentality, empathy or interpersonal relationships must be deemed an irrelevant obstruction to producing the utmost utility.
It also has a highly simplistic notion in that happiness can be equated with pleasure ; when human experience, history and cultural traditions reveal that self-sacrifice and heroism are highly admired.
Is not happiness - an abstract subjective concept - immeasurable ?
Because there were major criticisms and concerns with Bentham's 'Act' Utilitarianism; Rule utilitarianism was developed by Mill to counter the more self-centred aspects of Act's overly pragmatic flexibility towards one's own whims and desires.
For rule utilitarians, the correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when followed. In contrast, act utilitarians judge actions in terms of the goodness of their consequences without reference to rules of action. It stresses the greater utility of following a given rule in general, arguing that the practice of following some rule in all instances will have better consequences overall than allowing exceptions to be made in individual instances, even if better consequences can be demonstrated in those instances.Rule utilitarianism deems that people are happier if their society follows rules to guarantee people know what types of behaviour they can expect from others in given situations. Therefore utilitarians can justify a system that keeps to the rules unless there is a strong reason for breaking them.
A major criticism must therefore be that adhering to rules which are axiomatically lacking in promoting utility in a specific circumstance, irrespective of the collective benefits; cannot be considered as right action within that situation for the individual ; and to make any attempt to resolve or remedy that lack of utility would resort to a return to a personaist , subjective 'act' utilitarianism ; which contravenes the overriding principle inherant within rule utilitarianism that the needs of the many outweigh any needs of the few; or one.
This imbalance between the precedent given towards majority interest and the ignoring of minority concerns led to a restructuring of utilitarianism to accommodate and reconcile this conflict.
Preference utilitarianism , whose main proponent is Peter Singer ; insists that any severe detriment to the minority within rule utilitarianism e.g. the justification of slavery , or the execution of an innocent in order to prevent a riot and further death ; must be remedied by a compromise between all parties to a 'best preference satisfaction' where rather than the the best-possible pleasure for one party , a solution is found in which the possible optimal preference for happiness is achieved for all parties.
There are various types of questions you may get asked:
* You may get asked to explain Bentham's Hedonic Calculus or Mill's Utilitarianism
* You may be required to evaluate the theory or compare it to another theory.
* You may be asked to apply Utilitarianism to one of the issues studied.
The following are AS exam questions written by OCR:
(a) Describe and explain the main principles of Utilitarianism. 
(b) ‘Utilitarianism has nothing at all in common with religious ethics’. Discuss. 
(a) Explain a Utilitarian approach to issues raised by fertility treatment. 
(b) ‘A Utilitarian approach to issues raised by fertility treatment leads to wrong moral choices.’ 
(a) Explain the main differences between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. 
(b) To what extent is Utilitarianism a useful method of making decisions about euthanasia? 
This AS question is from January 2005:
(a) Explain how Utilitarianism might be applied to embryo research. 
(b) To what extent can embryo research be justified? 
This question is from June 2005:
(a) Explain the main differences between Utilitarianism and the ethics of Kant. 
(b) 'Happiness is the most important consideration in ethics.' Discuss. 
This A2 question is from June 2005:
Compare and contrast Utilitarianism with the ethics of the religion you have studied. 
This AS question is from January 2006:
(a) Explain how Bentham's version of Utilitarianism can be used to decide on the right course of action. 
(b) Evaluate a Utilitarian approach to abortion. 
This is an AS question from June 2006:
(a) Describe the main strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism. 
(b) ‘Utilitarianism is a good approach to genetic engineering.’ Discuss. 
This A2 exam question is from June 2006:
'Utilitarianism is the best approach to environmental issues.' Discuss. 
This AS question came up in January 2007:
(a) Explain the main differences between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. [33
(b) ‘Rule Utilitarianism ignores consequences.’ Discuss. 
These questions are both from June 2007:
(a) Explain the main strengths of Mill’s version of Utilitarianism. 
(b) ‘Mill’s Utilitarianism has no serious weaknesses.’ Discuss. 
(a) Explain how Utilitarianism might be applied to the issues surrounding the right to a child. 
(b) ‘Utilitarianism can lead to wrong moral decisions.’ Discuss. 
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When dealing with the religious aspects of Utilitarianism one must address its inherant conflicting ideals with the major religions which generally adhere to deontological 'natural law' ethical systems, the commands and statutes by religious founders, or even 'virtue ethics'.
Yet many progressive or reformed versions of the major faiths have a predilection towards a relaxation of the ethical inflexibility to a more situationist approach.
Fletcher's 'situationist ethics' is prone towards adopting a pragmatism and relativism which veers towards corresponding with preference utilitarianism ; where rather than maintaining a rigid legalistic system of ethics ; a flexibility towards compromise and accommodation for the benefits of the entire faith community may be considered as the best option e.g. contemporary liberal christian groups allowing remarriage for the divorced , or the blessing of same-sex unions.
Although utilitarianism is antagonistic to major religions in that one's moral authenticity , worth and dignity usually corresponds with a good motive and intention and an idealised sense of duty ; there are some religious groups which enforce the major ethical concerns are those which sustain, support and promote their religious community - and for these the application of a utilitarian ethical system may be collectively beneficial e.g. within reformed liberal judaism, sufism, reformed progressive christianity and community-based faith structures e.g. Quakers[Society of Friends] ; Baptist chapters , Jehovah's witnesses etc. The notion of the pleasure/pain principles could very easily be accommodated into certain varieties of Buddhism; where the renunciation of self-interest for the sake of the collective could be achieved through a utilitarian agenda structure where only the ultimate objective would differ; but not the means of achieving it.