Utilitarianism – “It is possible to measure good or pleasure and then reach a moral decision.” Discuss. (40 marks)

Colour code: 

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

Utilitarianism is a teleological (concerned with the end result) system of ethics which proposes happiness as the only intrinsic good. Jeremy Bentham developed his theory on the basis of psychological hedonism, which means human beings seek pleasure and avoid pain. Bentham referred to these as the “two sovereign masters” because they govern our behaviour. From this foundation, he postulated that ethics must be to this end; “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number.” The credibility of utilitarianism as an ethical theory rests upon whether individuals can measure pleasure. In this essay, I will be arguing against the statement while using the scholarly views of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Robert Nozick, and Peter Vardy.

In opposition to the successful measurement of pleasure, it is important to analyse the nature of pleasure itself. In his autobiography, John Stuart Mill reflects on happiness as a goal to be reached: “ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” He writes about how happiness often comes as a result of doing an activity or job for its own sake. If you take part in something with the intention of trying to be happy, the feeling is often lost. Pleasure and happiness are ephemeral emotions. If we indulge is pleasurable activities too often, they can become less stimulating and therefore less fulfilling. Robert Nozick proposes a thought experiment where we are offered the chance to be placed in a pleasure machine which will create pleasurable sensations for our entire lives. When presented with the option to be attached to this machine, many would decline. There appears to be something dissatisfying about the proposal.  These examples highlight a paradoxical relationship with what utilitarianism declares to be our aim as moral beings. Happiness is something many want but feelings change throughout our lives, and what we believe will make us happy can leave us unsatisfied. Consequently, it is debatable as to whether we are competent judges of what will promote pleasure, particularly in the long term.

Nevertheless, both Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would assert it is possible to measure pleasure with the intention of making moral decisions. Bentham, in his work “The principles of morals and legislation” developed the “hedonic calculus” to help people determine whether an action is moral or immoral. There are seven factors to consider which are: Duration, Intensity, Remoteness, Extent, Purity, Fecundity and Certainty. In an example of capital punishment, a legislator could assess the duration of the pleasure felt by society if a murderer was put to death; he could also reflect on the fecundity by examining the likely deterrent effect capital punishment might have on other possible criminals. John Stuart Mill argued that there are two categories of pleasures; higher and lower. Lower pleasures are those which appeal to appetite and could be known as “sensual.” Higher pleasures are intellectual because they involve the use of our reasoning. Mill’s use of this distinction indicates a measurement of pleasure. Competent judges (people who have experienced both the higher and the lower pleasures) will always prefer the pursuit of the higher pleasures because they are longer lasting and promote a richer sense of well-being. Therefore, Mill would state it is possible to measure pleasure and make life choices based on those measurements.

However, there is an issue with both Bentham and Mill’s proposals. There is a subjectivity to pleasure that makes it difficult to make confident decisions. Bentham himself declared “push-pin is as good as poetry.” This highlights a problem with Mill’s higher and lower pleasures. There is no way to verify whether certain pleasures are more worthwhile. With varying tastes, some people might prefer a hedonistic lifestyle of “lower” pleasures rather than reading books and attending the theater. Concerning the hedonic calculus; it is possible that different people would come to varying conclusions and therefore, it seems that reaching a clear understanding of what is moral is implausible.

Another argument contrary to the statement is the problem of predicting future outcomes. Peter Vardy (A Puzzle of Ethics) forms an argument which outlines why making decisions from a utilitarian perspective is not truly usable in an accurate way. Vardy suggests that if a doctor went out to make a house call for a pregnant woman and came across a car crash scene which involved the woman, her husband, and an elderly man; that first impressions would dictate the woman be saved. This is a non-sequitur; just because the woman has a baby does not necessarily lead to the greatest amount of pleasure. It is possible that the baby could grow up to be a serial killer and the old man could have his most important years ahead of him. The argument causes problems for a consequentialist approach because our ability to accurately predict the future is highly questionable.

In response, there needs to be practical decision making done in politics and day-to-day life. As individuals, we have to try and make the most informed decisions possible to maximise utility. For example, there could be decision needed on going to war. This might in retrospect appear wrong but hard choices needed to be made with the interest of the public in mind. On the other hand, the pragmatic approach might demonstrate that it is possible to measure pleasures and act on them, but it is not a satisfying answer to someone who is searching for an accurate method of moral decision-making.

In conclusion, while pleasure can be measured to an extent, it appears to be far too subjective for the basis of moral decision-making. Bentham and Mill’s proposals appear intuitive on the surface but, when analysed, leave too much room for error.

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