Ethics: Utilitarianism

In philosophy regarding ethics, the goal is to try to answer the question on what is the morally right thing to do. In answering this question, we want to be consistent with our answer. From this, philosophers have put forward what are called ethical theories. Similar to scientific theories, these are intended to be used universally, to apply the same method to each case so we can resolve ethical disputes and dilemmas. The first of these theories we will discuss is called utilitarianism.

In introductory philosophy courses, many will explain utilitarianism as the theory as the morally correct thing to do is the thing that will create the greatest amount of happiness. Although this is sometimes correct, I prefer to stress that utlitarianism is to maximise the greatest amount of utility (thus why it’s called utilitarianism). So, if caught in a moral dilemma, a utilitarian will reason as follows:

  • 1. Doing a will maximise more utility than doing b
  • 2. I should always do the the thing that maximises the most utility
  • Therefore,
  • 3. I should do a

What counts as utility: Bentham vs Mill

Two of the most popular traditional utilitarians known in philosophy are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who both had competing ideas of what counted as utility. Bentham, according to W. Sweet (n.d), is happiness, which Bentham describes as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. And recognised all pleasures and pain as equal. Therefore, whatever maximises pleasure and minimises pain, according to Bentham, is the utility to maximise. Mill, however, according to C. Heydt (n.d), is that Mill did not recognise all pleasures and pains as equal. Mill has been quoted to say “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”.

A broader analysis of Bentham’s and Mill’s views can be found here:

Test questions

Utilitarianism comes in many flavours and with different approaches, but this gives a good introduction to the ethical theory of utilitarianism. Try to resolve these dilemmas using Betham and Mill’s utilitarianism:

  1. I can either give $100 to my friend for his holiday or give it to the homeless man. What should I do?
  2. Should Batman kill the Joker?
  3. My child wants a new toy, should I buy a toy, or an educational book?

I highly recommend “Ethics and the limits of philosophy” by Bernard Williams. If you purchase these books via the link below, you are supporting this website. Thank you.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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