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Modern Analysis of Utilitarianism

Before diving into the depths of Utilitarianism let me first lay the foundation on which ethical philosophy is based. When conducting any type of business in today’s society it is generally expected that you follow a strict code of ethics. In my profession as a Real Estate Agent we have a very specific “Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice” that must be followed. Without these “descriptive ethics” many of the benefits, we have in our free-market economy would be jeopardized. Once the descriptive ethics are laid out we as individuals must stand back and analyze the specific conclusions that were derived. Instead of describing the beliefs & values, “normative ethics” prescribe what we should or ought to believe & value.

The final level of ethics is that of the “philosophical ethics” which will be the main focus of this paper. Philosophical ethics is that which analyzes and provides justifications for certain basic concepts of ethics. In this paper, the ethical theory of Utilitarianism will be delved into and dissected. It will discuss the characteristics and attributes of utilitarianism as well as the problems associated with it. This paper will also attempt to show how a utilitarian can justify the laissez-faire free-market system and what problems arise from it.

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Utilitarianism is an ethical theory developed in the modern period by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73) to promote fairness in British legislation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the interests of the upper classes tended to prevail and the sufferings of the lower classes were neglected. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that calls for putting benevolence into action. Mill interprets the term utilitarianism as signifying any moral theory in which acts are judged on the basis of their utility.

Mill further specifies that there is no one conception of what constitutes utility and there is no implication of a sect. Also known as universal hedonism, utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy in which the most moral or ethical acts are those which serve to increase happiness for most people and/or decreases the suffering for most people. The Principle of Utility says: “Follow those rules, the following of which will result in the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Two important distinctions in utilitarianism are act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. The act-utilitarian asks, “How much pleasure or pain would result if I did this now?” The rule-utilitarian asks, “How much pleasure or pain would result if everyone were to do this?” The distinction, then, lies in the fact that the act-utilitarian tends to judge each act in isolation whereas the rule-utilitarian judges an act in light of the possibility that it was to become a rule determining everyone’s future acts.

The argument in support of Utilitarianism is that Happiness is the ultimate goal. Everything we human beings do we do in order to be happier. Hence, happiness is the only thing that is universally (objectively) valuable. If we want life, food, jewelry or companionship, we desire these things only insofar as we believe them to have the tendency to promote our own happiness. Therefore, the right thing to do is the action that creates the state of affairs in which the only objectively valuable thing is maximized in the world — happiness.

The text uses the example of a typical car sale transaction to justify the “Laissez-faire Free-Market” utilitarian view. Imagine an open market where a girl wants to sell a car. She believes she will be more satisfied with the money rather than the car. Then there are two men who both would like the car and have the money to purchase it. They will be more satisfied with the car than the money they have in their hands. If these people were left alone to try and satisfy themselves, they would most likely begin some kind of bargaining process that occurs in markets.

Looking to maximize her profits the girl would accept bids until the men would no longer play anymore. One of the men would reach a point at which they feel the money in their hand is worth more than the car they could buy. At this point, the car is sold to the highest bidder. The girl is satisfied, she has maximized her profits, and the other men are also satisfied. Adam Smith believed this is an ideal example of the “invisible hand” at work. If the appropriate social structure is in place (laissez-faire economy) the individual’s pursuit of self-interest will take over leading to the greatest overall good.

There are, however, some difficulties with utilitarianism:

1. Impracticality – Can one really calculate all the expectable consequences of all the possible actions before one acts? Wouldn’t that take an unreasonably long time to do in many cases?

2. Sufficient Condition- is there not other ways to go about the objective of satisfying the large majority of people? This says the free market is not the only way to obtain the end goal; there are other ways to do so. For example, in the idealistic model of communism, the majority of people are satisfied by the government’s implementation of social welfare. The same object of overall happiness is achieved and the free market is not necessary. In the free market economy, some people are left at a disadvantage because they may not have the money to pursue what will make them happy. Not everyone has the same amount of money; therefore some people are left with more happiness than others.

3. Favoritism – not only is one likely to favour oneself and loved ones in doing calculations, but many would argue that one ought to favour oneself and loved ones. If we each treated our own happiness with the same regard as the happiness of every other individual in this world, this would require a level of self-sacrifice that is ultimate and complete. Who could ever be this perfect? Is it even desirable?

What about the plans and projects which you as an individual enjoy pursuing? Could you ever argue that the money you spent on school books this year was the best thing you could have done with the money in order to create the situation in which there are the most pleasure and freedom from pain in the world?

Also, shouldn’t one favour one’s family over another family? Suppose your house is burning down, along with your neighbour’s house. You have time to save the children in only one house. The neighbours have five bright, promising youngsters. You have only one child who has a hard time in school and gets along poorly with others.

Do you save the neighbour’s kids, on the grounds that there are more of them and they have more promise, and thus that their deaths would lead to more unhappiness? Or, do you owe a special duty to your own to show favouritism in such a case? Are teachers required to favour their own students over students in other classes? Do you owe your parents more than you do other people their own age?

Instead of performing the act that would create the most happiness, the Rule Utilitarian claims that we should act according to the rule or set of rules, which will create the most happiness in the society. For example, although there may be certain instances in which the person in question would suffer less if s/he committed suicide, it is best to have a rule against suicide in society because a) depressed people are very bad at calculating the likelihood of future happiness, particularly depressed teenagers, b) if a depressed teenager is taught that it is acceptable to kill yourself when your life is likely to be more pain than pleasure, s/he most likely will, so c) the policy that suicide should be prohibited results in more pleasure than pain. Same as with lying.

There is a dilemma when we look at the problems with the utilitarian justification of the free markets. Utilitarianism does not differentiate between qualities of preferences. We can use the example of a poor man who needs health care and a rich man who wants a new luxury sports car. Is it right that the rich man is able to buy the car because he has money while the poor man cannot get basic health care? This is not intrinsically (good in itself) or instrumentally (good as a means to some other end) good. We as morally independent people should place more value on health care but the utilitarian believer does not. Something is wrong with this picture.

To conclude I would have to say these problems seem rather compelling on the premise on which they are based. When you think deeper there is a rebuttal to each. When looking back at the problems that sometimes the rules don’t bring about the greater good. There are times when it will be clear that the greater good is served by breaking the rule (just this once). Mills would respond by saying the times when this is necessary will be rather clear – so this is not a problem.

Likewise, once rules are made, people stop thinking (i.e….”we’ve always done it that way.”) People may continue to follow rules even when they do not produce the greater good. Mills would respond by saying to ensure that the rules continue to produce the greater good, we will need to periodically re-assess the consequences of following a rule.

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Modern Analysis of Utilitarianism. (2021, Feb 22). Retrieved March 6, 2021, from