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[ INSTA Ethics ] : What is Utilitarianism




In ethical philosophy, utilitarianism is a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals. Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. Unlike other forms of consequentialism, such as egoism and altruism, utilitarianism considers the interests of all humans equally.

Utilitarianism as a distinct ethical position only emerged in the 18th century, and although it is usually thought to have begun with Jeremy Bentham, there were earlier writers who presented theories that were strikingly similar.

The Three Generally Accepted Axioms of Utilitarianism state that

  • Pleasure, or happiness, is the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  • Actions are right if they promote happiness, and wrong if they promote unhappiness.
  • Everyone’s happiness counts equally.

Advantages of utilitarianism

  • We get to base our primary focus on the satisfaction of society.
  • The theory can be easily implemented.
  • Utilitarianism is a secular system that is mainly centered on humanity.
  • The theory seeks to achieve the greatest good for society.
  • The theory teaches us that it’s wrong to harm other people.
  • The theory sheds light on objectives that offer a universal solution.
  • The Theory works with our natural intuition.

However, there are grounds on which the Utilitarianism is criticized too.

  • Utilitarianism is based on the notion that whatever functions should or should not be performed by the individual should be tested on the touch-stone of utility. If this notion is accepted, each individual will work only for his own pleasure. One will ignore benevolence, renunciation, service and sacrifice.
    • For instance, slavery is justified from a utilitarian perspective as it benefits agrarian economy; however, it is unjust as it undermines the universal moral principle of ‘human dignity’.
  • Utilitarianism also has trouble accounting for values like justice and individual rights.
    • For example, say a hospital has four people whose lives depend upon receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, a kidney, and a liver. If a healthy person wanders into the hospital, his organs could be harvested to save four lives at the expense of his one life. This would arguably produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But few would consider it an acceptable course of action, let alone an ethical one.
  • Utilitarianism is allegedly the foundations of our legal system, so it is important to ask ourselves whether it is actually fair or whether some are denied the simple right to have their own interests respected.
    • For instance, Utilitarianism cannot be applied to entities that do not have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain or at least to have recognisable goals that they are aware of fulfilling. This debatably does not include some animals, advanced AI, the planet as a whole, a deity or the victory conditions of an overall storyline, game or narrative. Many people will argue that they should be ascribed certain rights or their interests recognized.
  • Another limitation of utilitarianism is that it tends to create a black-and-white construct of morality. In utilitarian ethics, there are no shades of gray—either something is wrong or it is right.
  • Utilitarianism also cannot predict with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad—the results of our actions happen in the future.
    • For instance, bringing down of illegal shops run mostly by poor on road sides is in line with policy and also is good for maximum of people. However, keeping in mind the livelihood needs of the poor, the demolition process should be such that enough time is provided to the poor so as to shift and if possible, must be provided with an alternative.
  • Utilitarianism cared only for physical comfort, and have ignored the suppression of sense and self-control. It also doesn’t care for the spiritual comfort which one derives from self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity.