Utilitarianism – “Ethical judgements about something being good, bad, right or wrong should based on the extent to which, in any given situation, utility is best served.” Assess this view. (40 marks)

Colour code: 

  • Blue – Your argument  
  • Red – Argument against
  • Orange – Critical analysis
  • Purple – Scholars

The principle of utility was proposed by Jeremy Bentham and states that what is moral is what best serves the end of utility. It is often quoted as the “the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people.” This theory of ethics is teleological (based on the end or consequences of an action) and has arguably made a big impact in political theory; with the work of John Stuart Mill influencing the views on equal rights of women and giving citizens the right to vote. This could lead many to argue that what is good is what best serves utility. However, I will be arguing against this motion with an examination of the flaws of Bentham and Mill, as well as the philosophical arguments of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas, AJ Ayer and Nietzsche.

The notion that morality is based upon utility being best served can be considered to be a controversial one. Throughout history, religious beliefs about conscience and the will of God have dominated ethics. The Thirteenth Century theologian Thomas Aquinas postulated that we can know what is moral based upon our use of reason. Through right reasoning, Aquinas thought that all humans are able to reflect on God’s eternal law. This led him to develop primary precept by using reason; such as “defence of the innocent” and “living in an ordered society.” For Aquinas, these are considered to be binding because they allow us to fulfil our telos by growing into perfection and uniting with God in the afterlife. Christianity would claim that God is the only intrinsic good, not utility. Furthermore, Immanuel Kant would reject utilitarianism because of its heteronomous approach. Kant condemns ethics being based on consequences because the moral law requires the Good Will to be served as its own end. Utilitarianism also treats people as a means to an end; something that Kant believed was contrary to reason. As moral agents, we must be able to universalize a maxim in order to protect the dignity of rational beings.

On the contrary, Jeremy Bentham would argue that morality must be based upon utility being best served. Bentham was an empiricist and as a result, he wanted to develop a system of ethics which was founded on repeated observations. He claimed that human beings are driven by “two sovereign masters”, pleasure and pain. This can be referred to as psychological hedonism. It then follows that because individuals seek pleasure and avoid pain, that a society formed of individuals would want to achieve this same end. As a result, Bentham stipulated that laws promoting the greatest amount of happiness for the majority of people would be in the public’s interest.

This line of argument can be brought into question. AJ Ayer, one of the prominent British logical positivists of his era, developed a meta-ethical theory of emotivism. This posited that all ethical language could not be empirically verified and therefore was not truly meaningful. Ayer’s emotivism is often referred to as the “boo-hurrah” theory because it argues that whenever someone expresses a moral agreement or outrage, they are in fact, only declaring a personal feeling about the matter. Consequently, there is nothing empirical about Bentham’s ethics because he is proposing his own subjective opinion on what he believes to be right.

Another dispute on the statement is a further comment on the subjective nature of utilitarian decision making. Act utilitarianism requires the decision maker to consider the consequences of every individual action. Jeremy Bentham developed the hedonic calculus to help guide legislators and citizens when making choices; taking into account factors such as the duration, intensity and the extent of the pleasure. The problem with the hedonic calculus is that each person can misjudge a situation or retain too much bias to accurately determine what will promote the most amount of happiness. The modern-day utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer also states that we should all act as impartial spectators when making decisions but impartiality can be very hard to achieve.

In response, John Stuart Mill advanced the theory of utilitarianism to focus on higher pleasures rather than lower. Mill recognised that human flourishing is obtained when utilising our reasoning; leading him to consider pursuits such as poetry and philosophy being better than push-pin (a boring pub game). He supposed that a competent judge of pleasures is someone who has experienced both the higher and lower and that the higher would always be favoured. John Stuart Mill would argue that moral actions are those that promote this type of flourishing.

However, problems of basing morality on utility continue to arise. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could criticise the principle of utility because it might not allow the excellence of the individual to be cultivated. Nietzsche’s concept of the “Overman” is used as a contrast to Christian ethics and their view of human nature but alternatively can be seen as an opposition to liberal values of equality. Rather than pursue the good of the many; it should be acceptable for unique, driven persons to strive for greatness. Morality in this context is less about serving others entirely but instead, giving people the means to become successful.

In conclusion, while utilitarian ethics has helped progress society to where it currently lies, it cannot be said to be a philosophically sound theory of morality. Questions can be raised about its subjectivity because of the difficulty in predicting outcomes. There are also many other conflicting ethical systems which propose different intrinsic goods such as God or the Good Will. Why utility is the true intrinsic good, rather than the others, is hard to argue.

Word count: 932

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