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What are the main features of classical utilitarianism Essay

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of classical utilitarianism.Utilitarianism is a teleological theory of ethics. This is an action judged as moral or ethical from the consequences the action has caused. The key principle of utilitarianism is epitomised in the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ This philosophy was founded by Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and is also associated with John Stuart Mill who augmented the theory in the nineteenth century. Bentham defined the principle of Utility as the action in bringing about the maximum happiness in all involved. According to Bentham the correct ethical standard is the principle of utility, the word ‘utility’ is the tendency of something to produce happiness. Bentham was a hedonist and, like Epicurus, believed that pleasure was the sole good and pain the sole evil. For him an act is right when it is instrumentally good, it contains qualities which lead to pleasure. This can be calculated on the Hedonic Calculus. By using the Hedonic Calculus quality of the happiness can be assessed.This is achieved by gauging the intensity, certainty, purity, spread, duration, and propinquity of the happiness produced. For example, a rich man drops fifty pounds which seems such a small to him amount that he does not notice. It is picked up by a poor drunkard. The poor man really wants a drink and uses the hedonic calculus to work out whether he should keep the money. The intensity of the pleasure will be greater for the poor man than the pain experienced by the rich one in losing the money. The certainty is almost guaranteed, he will be able to buy drink with the money. However the pleasure of the drunk will be tinged with pain because of the guilt he may experience in doing something dishonest and a possible hangover in the morning. The duration will be short term for the poor man if he spends it all at once and it will be immediate. This calculation suggests that the poor man should keep the money despite it being morally wrong to steal.John Stuart Mill puts greater stress on the variety of pleasures and distinguishes between their respective values. He maintains that some pleasures, namely those on the mind, are higher and more estimable than others, namely those of the mind. This overcomes certain problems with Bentham’s theory. For example, with Bentham’s it was possible to defend sadistic guards torturing a prisoner. However, with the addition of quality of pleasure to the Hedonic Calculus Mill considers the quality of the guards’ pleasure so low that it is still viewed as immoral. This raises the question of whether it would be better to be a human dissatisfied or a pig satisfied. Socrates proves that intellectuals are not happy yet no-one is fully able to experience both situations. Mill states that the pleasures experienced by a human or Socrates are of far better quality than those experienced by a pig or fool. Mill therefore rejects quantitative because of the human ability to experience ‘higher,’ intellectual pleasures.There are, however, certain arguments raised by the idea of utilitarianism. One of these is the problem of consequence, which is the fact that we cannot be sure of the events the action will cause down the line. For example, a man might save a drowning boy who grows up to become a tyrant like Hitler who causes masses of pain to millions of people. Is it still ethical to save his life? Another major flaw in this theory is the problem of special responsibility, that is responsibility for children or parents. Would it therefore be more ethical to save your daughter opposed to a scientist with the cure for cancer if it was only possible to save one? A very significant problem with utilitarianism is that fact that often the more utilitarian conclusion goes against justice. It would not be fair to kill an innocent man to restore order although this would create more net happiness.Utilitarianism is a straightforward way of making a decision. It is simple and easy to understand, although it is often difficult to judge what makes people happy. Also, it is important to recognise that pain is not necessarily a bad thing, grief aids the sufferer in the long run, guilt is a lesson of conscience and self sacrifice is commendable. The hedonic calculus is easy to follow in certain respects but with the idea of qualitative utilitarianism it becomes very slow to make a decision and so the time of the action would have passed if the decision had to be made immediately.Another benefit is that everyone is treated equally and counting only as one in contrast to another person, no matter who they are. This raises the debate over whether certain people should be counted as more than another, for example a family member and whether all people are actually, as claimed, all treated as equals. We know that quality of pleasure is assessed and so the pleasure of someone in the wrong morally is not given equal weight to those in the moral right.The whole aim of utilitarianism is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number and it is true that the majority of pleasure is followed. This is a suitable conclusion in many situations but we have to consider whether this is always a good thing. W.D.Ross considered the duties he thought should be put beside happiness such as fidelity, justice, beneficence, self-improvement and nonmalificence. It is also not always beneficial to have constant majority rule as this excludes many minorities such as pressure groups like Greenpeace or previously the Suffragettes. It also excludes disabled people and could lead to eugenics as initiated by Hitler as he ethnically cleansed Germany of all Jews and other minorities.

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