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TP Utilitarian Theory

This ethical theory is a very popular moral theory. The seeds of this theory were sewn by
the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (342-270 BCE), who stated that pleasure is the goal that
the nature has ordained for us; it is also the standard by which we judge everything good.
According to this view, rightness and wrongness are determined by pleasure or pain that
something produces. Epicurus’s theory focused largely on the individual’s personal experience
of pleasure and pain, and to that extent he advocated a version of ethical egoism. Nevertheless,
Epicurus inspired series of eighteenth-century philosophers who emphasized the notion of
general happiness - that is, the pleasing consequences of actions that impact others and not just
the individual. Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) stated that “that action is best, which procures
the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” David Hume (1711–1776) introduced the term
utility to describe the pleasing consequences of actions as they impact people. 1 So in this short
paper we shall treat some relevant aspects about this theory providing some practical examples.
We shall examine also its pros and cons, and afterwards we shall punctuate with the personal
reflection about this theory.
The extension of hedonism beyond mere selfish pleasure to the pleasure of the group is
called utilitarianism. It makes little difference whether we taken hedonism as the general term,
dividing it into egoistic and altruistic, and putting utilitarianism under the altruistic division; or
whether we restrict the term hedonism to the egoistic variety and identify utilitarianism with
altruism.2 The classical expressions of utilitarianism, though, appear in the writings of two
English philosophers and social reformers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill
Louis P.Pojman and James Fiesher, Ethics Discovering Right and Wrong, 8 th edition, (Boston: Cengage
Learning, 2009), 109.
Fagothy, Austin, Right and reason Ethics: Ethics in Theory and Practice, 2 nd edition, (St Louis: The C.V.
Mosby Company, 1959), 139.
Taking together the view of Bentham and Mill, the fundamental viewpoints of utilitarianism
are:A. Pleasure is the only intrinsic good, and pain is the only intrinsic evil.
B. The moral worth of an action is judged according to the goodness and badness of its
C. An act is morally right, if its consequence produce pleasure and bad, if its consequence
produces pain.
D. The pleasure produced by a moral act has to be greatest pleasure for greatest number of
E. The necessity of identifying the amount of the pleasure and pain. Accordingly, an act is
morally, right, if it brings great amount of good (pleasure) over evil (pain) than any
action that could have been taken.3
These five tenets, we would say, clearly show that utilitarian theory has given great value for the
act done by a person or groups. That is, moral goodness and badness is determined solely
whether the act is right or wrong and not the person’s motive or inclination to do the act. Thus,
for utilitarian, what is right and wrong is not the person’s act and they determine the rightness of
an act by its effect (consequence). For an act to be right its consequence has to be good and what
is intrinsically good is pleasure. Hence pleasure and the rightness of act are inseparable and this
alone is moral goodness.
There are two examples that have often come up in discussions about utilitarian ethics in
my personal experience, and they are both very similar in nature.
The first one is that, a patient comes into a hospital who has been in a car accident and sustained
serious injuries. If untreated, the patient will surely die; however, the injuries are treatable and
the patient can be saved. The doctor who is to operate him notices that the patient is an organ
donor. There are five other people in the hospital who need organs, will die without the organs,
and have no opportunity to receive such organs. The underlying assumption is that they are all
match for the organs of the patient who just came in. So the doctor must choose to operate or not.
Walelign Emiru, Moral Philosophy: Ethics from Antiquity to Contemporary Period, 2 nd Edition, (Addis
Ababa, Woynishet Press, 2016), 101-102.
I have also heard this with added levels of information such as each person’s contribution to
society - the organ donor had a low contribution, etc.
The second, similar example is that a conductor of a train is coming up to a switch in the
train track. On the track the train is currently set on, there are five people tied down. All five will
die if the train continues down this track. The conductor has the opportunity to switch the track
to a rail where only one person is tied. However, in switching the track, the conductor is
deliberately moving the train on to that track and killing the one person. This is opposed to just
allowing the situation to continue (the train continues on its original track) and five people
happen to die.
The responses to both scenarios vary depending on one’s stance in ethics. For a utilitarian, the
answer will be to either save the most people, or to save the person(s) who make the greatest
contributions to society.
Additionally, when studying this theory, there are significant advantages and disadvantages that
arise. Some of those include:
Pros of Utilitarian Theory
We get to base our primary focus on the satisfaction of society
The main reason that makes the Utilitarian theory famous is based on the fact that the
theory bases its primary focus of existence on the contentment of society. By studying people
across the globe, very few are experiencing this kind of emotion (satisfaction). It’s vital to note
that people’s happiness is based on their access to financial resources and employment.
The theory seeks to achieve the greatest good for society
Everyone today dreams of a perfect world with equal opportunities and happiness, but
this goal are impossible to achieve with the numerous difference within our sub-groups.
Nevertheless, with the Utilitarian principle, which is mainly based on the larger part as a group
for pleasure rather than everyone, we may bring maximum joy levels into our lives. Based on the
idea that brings maximum level of pleasure into our lives we need to limit the potentials of harm
happening in our families, communities and the overall culture.4
Cons of Utilitarian Theory
This theory does not consider any other element besides happiness
As a way of determining an action’s morally and ethically, Utilitarian only focuses on majority
happiness. It’s critical to note that various items have tremendous values to consider besides joy
in our human lives. An example of such a matter is love. Love is one value that can offer a
person extraordinary benefits, but it can also lead to unrepairable destruction. It means that we
make numerous decisions each day, which look at the long-term perspective or future
perspective rather than our feelings at that particular time. With this, we learn that even though
Utilitarian has several benefits, it also ignores many of our life experiences. There are also some
other cons.
Moreover, Utilitarianism tells us to reduce suffering and increase happiness. In practice,
utilitarians put more emphasis on reducing suffering than on increasing happiness. One reason
for this is practical: when people are hungry, cold, and ill, we can alleviate their suffering by
providing food, shelter, and health care. However, when they already have these basic
necessities, and are not suffering, it is not so easy to know how to make them happier.5 In the
same respect, Sir Karl Popper has suggested that we should concern ourselves not so much with
the increasing of happiness as with the maximization of suffering. By suffering we must
understand misery involving actual pain, not just unhappiness, for otherwise the doctrine
becomes unclear. For example, we may hope that indirectly research will help to minimize pains,
but that is not the only reason why we found university. We do so partly because we want the
happiness of understanding the world. But producing the happiness of understanding could
equally we be thought of as removing the unhappiness of ignorance.6
Eventually, the problem with utilitarianism is the impossibility to compare utility on the
interpersonal level. If the right action is what produces the net good for me, then there is a
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/ Accessed 23 October, 2021.
Fagothy, Austin, Right and reason Ethics: Ethics in Theory and Practice, 141.
J.J.C., Smart, and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against, (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1973), 28-29.
possibility of being so uncaring, unconcerned and unemphathetic to the other person, especially
if he or she is a stumbling block to my maximizing of the good. For utilitarians, the end justifies
the means; that is, the end, which is maximizing the net good, determines the means an
individual will use to attain his or her end.7 For instance, if a particular tribe wants to maintain
the presidency, for their own selfish ends, they will fight by all means to attain their end.
Similarly, if the rich want to maintain getting exorbitant profits, they will go to all limits,
corruption, evading taxes and dubious business deals, so as to maximise what they see as their
net good.
My Personal Reflection and Observations
The practice of utilitarianism is unbelievably demanding on an individual. Not only does
the person have to concern himself with doing what is best for the well-being of himself and
those close to him, but he also has to consider how his actions will the entire world (his
surroundings). To do this properly, in following the doctrine, someone has to consider the
immune number of people in the world who need help, and the innumerable ways in which he
could help them. Utilitarianism follows, we would say, that, when a person makes a sacrifice, if
that sacrifice does not increase the total happiness of the world’s population, it is ultimately
wasted. And that is a lot of pressure to put on an individual who is trying to make a decision.
Another aspect is that every person’s wants and needs are unique and different. What one
person may need in one situation, another person may not. This is because we can argue that no
one could possibly make a decision he is sure would benefit everyone in the world, if everyone
places different priorities on what they need in a given situation. Therefore, wants and needs are
individual. We cannot assume the wants and needs of all mankind.
Furthermore, there are some weaknesses in this theory. Utilitarianism’s primary
weakness has to do with justice. A standard objection to utilitarianism is that it could require us
to violate the standards of justice. For example, imagine that someone is a judge in a small town.
And someone has committed a crime, and there has been some social unrest resulting in injuries,
violent conflict, and some rioting. As the judge, he or she knows that if he or she sentences an
innocent man to death, the town will be calmed and peace restored. If he sets him free, even
L. Mattei - P. Wambu, A Guide to Christian Ethics and Formation in Moral Maturity, (Nairobi: The
Catholic University of Eastern Africa Press, 2000), 89.
more unrest will erupt, with more harm coming to the town and its people. Utilitarianism seems
to require punishing the innocent in certain circumstances, such as these.
Conclusively, it is wrong to punish an innocent person, because it violates his rights and
is unjust. But for the utilitarian, all that matters is the net gain of happiness. If the happiness of
the many is increased enough, it can justify making one (or a few) miserable in service of the
rest. Utilitarianism requires that one commit unjust actions in certain situations and because of
this it is fundamentally flawed. Some things ought never to be done, regardless of the positive
consequences that may ensue. Utilitarian moral reasoning is prevalent in our political and moral
dialogue. Consequences have a place, and must be considered, but we must also think about
other moral principles, the relevant virtues, human rights, and what our choices and judgments
say about us. Consequences matter, but they are not all that matter. This is because morality is
about more than the consequences of our actions.
In this paper we tried to examine one of the popular theories of ethics which is dominant
in every aspect of our walking. It is reasonable to reduce suffering and enhance happiness but we
should not deprive the right of others in order to attain happiness. Because a person by any
means should not be treated as a means to an end in a negative sense. Utilitarian theory is about
greatest happiness for the greatest number but the opposite can happen also. For instance, in my
country, Ethiopia, the former government leading party by using its power looted the resources;
cheated people to attain its selfish whims and purposes. After stepping down from the reign, they
didn’t want to continue with the central government. They all went back to their regional state
and started preparing themselves how to attack the government and come back to the rule. And
they ambushed, killed the Ethiopian National Defense Force who were in that region; this have
brought all tensions, suffering and tragedy in the country now. This is how messing up comes
when we think only of the happiness of particular groups neglecting the entire people of the
country. This theory somehow has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Emiru, Walelign. Moral Philosophy: Ethics from Antiquity to Contemporary Period. 2nd
Edition. Addis Ababa: Woynishet Press, 2016.
Fagothy, Austin. Right and reason Ethics: Ethics in Theory and Practice. 2nd editio. St Louis:
The C.V. Mosby Compan, 1959.
Fiesher, Louis P.Pojman and James. Ethics Discovering Right and Wrong. 8th edition. Boston:
Cengage Learning, 2009.
J.J.C., Smart, and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism For and Against. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1973.
Wambu, L. Mattei - P. A Guide to Christian Ethics and Formation in Moral Maturity. Nairobi:
The Catholic University of Eastern Africa Press, 2000.
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/ Accessed 28 October, 2021.