Utilitarianism as an ethical theory

The best known version of consequentialism is utilitarianism. This theory defines morality in terms of the maximization of net expectable utility for all parties affected by a decision or action. Although forms of utilitarianism have been put forward and debated since ancient times, the modern theory is most often associated with the British philosopher John Stuart Mill who developed the theory from a plain hedonistic version put forward by his mentor Jeremy Bentham As most clearly stated by Mill, the basic principle of utilitarianism is:

Utilitarianism as an ethical theory

Classic Utilitarianism The paradigm case of consequentialism is utilitarianism, whose classic proponents were Jeremy BenthamJohn Stuart Milland Henry Sidgwick For predecessors, see Schneewind Classic utilitarians held hedonistic act consequentialism.

Act consequentialism is the claim that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion.

Hedonism then claims that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. An act can increase happiness for most the greatest number of people but still fail to maximize the net good in the world if the smaller number of people whose happiness is not increased lose much more than the greater number gains.

The principle of utility would not allow that kind of sacrifice of the smaller number to the greater number unless the net good overall is increased more than any alternative. Classic utilitarianism is consequentialist as opposed to deontological because of what it denies.

It denies that moral rightness depends directly on anything other than consequences, such as whether the agent promised in the past to do the act now.

Of course, the fact that the agent promised to do the act might indirectly affect the act's consequences if breaking the promise will make other people unhappy.

Nonetheless, according to classic utilitarianism, what makes it morally wrong to break the promise is its future effects on those other people rather than the fact that the agent promised in the past. Since classic utilitarianism reduces all morally relevant factors Kagan17—22 to consequences, it might appear simple.

However, classic utilitarianism is actually a complex combination of many distinct claims, including the following claims about the moral rightness of acts: These claims could be clarified, supplemented, and subdivided further. What matters here is just that most pairs of these claims are logically independent, so a moral theorist could consistently accept some of them without accepting others.

Utilitarianism as an ethical theory

Yet classic utilitarians accepted them all. That fact makes classic utilitarianism a more complex theory than it might appear at first sight.

It also makes classic utilitarianism subject to attack from many angles. Persistent opponents posed plenty of problems for classic utilitarianism. Each objection led some utilitarians to give up some of the original claims of classic utilitarianism.

By dropping one or more of those claims, descendants of utilitarianism can construct a wide variety of moral theories. Advocates of these theories often call them consequentialism rather than utilitarianism so that their theories will not be subject to refutation by association with the classic utilitarian theory.

This array of alternatives raises the question of which moral theories count as consequentialist as opposed to deontologicaland why.

Utilitarianism as an ethical theory

Of course, different philosophers see different respects as the important ones. Hence, there is no agreement on which theories count as consequentialist under this definition.

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To resolve this vagueness, we need to determine which of the various claims of classic utilitarianism are essential to consequentialism. One claim seems clearly necessary. If that claim is dropped, the theory ceases to be consequentialist.

It is less clear whether that claim by itself is sufficient to make a theory consequentialist. Several philosophers assert that a moral theory should not be classified as consequentialist unless it is agent-neutral McNaughton and RawlingHoward-SnyderPettit This narrower definition is motivated by the fact that many self-styled critics of consequentialism argue against agent-neutrality.

Other philosophers prefer a broader definition that does not require a moral theory to be agent-neutral in order to be consequentialist Bennett ; Broome5—6; and Skorupski Criticisms of agent-neutrality can then be understood as directed against one part of classic utilitarianism that need not be adopted by every moral theory that is consequentialist.

Moreover, according to those who prefer a broader definition of consequentialism, the narrower definition conflates independent claims and obscures a crucial commonality between agent-neutral consequentialism and other moral theories that focus exclusively on consequences, such as moral egoism and recent self-styled consequentialists who allow agent-relativity into their theories of value SenBroomePortmore A definition solely in terms of consequences might seem too broad, because it includes absurd theories such as the theory that an act is morally right if it increases the number of goats in Texas.

Of course, such theories are implausible.Aug 21,  · Utilitarianism as an ethics theory primarily values the good of the community over the good of the individual.

One might think of it as “the ends justify the means.” In other words, the metric for a good utilitarian action is the degree to which it benefits the community rather than the cost it . Ethics. The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.

Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Purpose: Through the academic disciplines and co-curricular activities, General Education provides multiple, varied, and intentional learning experiences to facilitate the acquisition of fundamental knowledge and skills and the development of attitudes that foster effective citizenship and life-long.

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that says an action is morally right if it benefits the greatest number of beings with the greatest good. You determine what is right by calculating the amount of pleasure or suffering you think your actions may cause.

Utilitarianism definition, the ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons. See more. Utilitarianism also differs from ethical theories that make the rightness or wrongness of an act dependent upon the motive of the agent; for, according to the Utilitarian, it is possible for the right thing to be done from a bad motive.

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