Utilitarianism is an ethical consequential theory that adopts the principle of utility which is judging acts by the goodness it brings to the greatest number of individuals. This essay aims to review briefly the Utilitarianism theory, its relation to the theory of justice, and summarize the point of strength and weaknesses of Utilitarianism.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a British political reformer who lived in an era where theft of as small as 5 shillings was enough justification for the death penalty. Bentham believed deportation to a penal colony (Georgia, USA or Australia) is a suitable penalty. Bentham was a Hedonist who believed that pleasure is the final pursuit of all humans. In ethics, Bentham’s proposal was the principle of utility (known now as Utilitarianism), which as he phrased act to create the utmost good for the maximum number. Bentham defined good as happiness and happiness is a pleasure. Later, James Mill (1773-1836) as a supporter of human rights and women’s equality brought together his beliefs with Bentham’s principle of utility. He achieved that by making the rules of action (now called Rule Utilitarianism) the objective of the principle of utility rather than the individual actions (Act Utilitarianism) (Ross, 2005).
Utilitarianism has three principles: 1- Consequentialism which is the principle by which the eligibility of an action to be right or wrong depends on whether its outcome is good or bad. 2- The policies, practices, and beliefs that characterize the welfare state (Welfarism). This means the best of matters of concerns, or social events are to be judged solely by the goodness of the array of individual utilities in that particular matter of concern. In other words, whatever makes up welfare (wealth, happiness, or high income) becomes the only feature to decide the best matter of concern. 3- Sum ranking (combined total), which means the goodness of a collection of individual utilities is judged totally by the combined sum of goodness. In this frame, there is no place to compare two or more collections of individual utilities. Further, this does not consider a single individual holding of utilities, only the individuals’ collective holdings of utilities. The objective of utilitarianism is to make the most of the combined total utility taken over all the members of society regardless of how it is distributed and who holds it and who does not. This may occur when the marginal utility of each individual is equal which has caused much criticism (Willem, 2005).
The theory of justice and Utilitarianism
Justice is the first good value of societal organization, with the principal theme being the way societal organizations allocate basic essential rights and duties and decide the equality in distributing advantages attained from social cooperation. From a utilitarian perspective, a just society is a good one and is good in sum rank to all individuals that it consists of (Blackorby and others, 1999). Based on the Consequentialism principle, Utilitarianism tells individuals to do what they may think not to do and the opposite is true as long as it brings good. The absence of universality of what is good and what has not created a problem of utilitarianism with justice regarding punishment, being capital or a form of slavery (imprisonment). This weakens the rule of law in many cases, and further, weakens or demoralizes individuals responsible for law enforcement. Thus, minimizes the utilitarianist benefits of punishment (Carruthers, n.d.).
Rule and act Utilitarianism
Rule Utilitarianism is that an act or a course of action is right only if it fits within the moral code (collection of rules) of a society, which increases rank-sum goodness (Prevos, 2004). In this context, rule Utilitarianism looks as if it is an alternative for those believing in absolute exclusion of certain actions but do not give up Utilitarianism (Prevos, 2004). Act Utilitarianism means that consequences (utilities, actual or expected) of every individual action or series of actions judge the goodness of this action (Prevos, 2004). For further explanation, an act is right if it results in happiness for the greatest number of people, and causes pleasure but not pain. Also, an action is right if its consequences are high and even greater than the action that would have been done instead (Jackson, n.d.).
Strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is an ethical consequential theory that provides an appealing assumption (pleasure, goodness, and happiness) for judging acts. It looks at morality as a social continuum to individuals’ natural tendencies and desires. It focuses on the practices contributing to happiness and not on natural rights or norms (Willem, 2005). LaFave (2006) described five principal objections to Utilitarianism. The first is that Utilitarianism is a straightforward pleasure-seeking theory. The second objection is Utilitarianism asks individuals to put the group’s goodness before their individual’s (a demanding societal component of the theory). The third objection is that the theory overlooked that an individual’s inherent motives and indigenous values can lead to immoral and unjust actions. This is related to the fourth objection that is, although happiness is a human ultimatum. Yet, the absence of objective measurements and provision of subjective meaning that lacks authorization may lead to immoral and unjust actions. Finally, LaFave (2006) suggested that it may take too much time to work out a utility for each case.
Utilitarianism is an ethical consequential theory that is based on the principle of utility, which recognizes that goodness means to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of individuals. The amount of criticism compared to supporting arguments suggest there are some unfavorable features, which further changes and adjustments of the principal have failed to address.
Blackorby, C., Bossert, W., and Donaldson, D. (1999). Utilitarianism and the theory of justice. Web.
Carruthers, P. (n.d.). 140: Matters of life and death – 4 – Utilitarianism and justice.
Jackson, K., B. (n.d.). Act-Utilitarianism. Web.
LaFave, S. (2006). Utilitarianism. Web.
Prevos, P. (2004). Rule and Act Utilitarianism. Web.
Ross, K. L. (2005). The Mummy’s Curse: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832.
Willem, V W., M. (2005).Equal opportunity and liberal equality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Johannesburg.