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Transcript of Utilitarianism
The study of
in philosophy is traditionally subdivided into two distinct areas known as;
1. normative ethics
The study of
moral theories which attempt to distinguish right actions from wrong actions.
Normative moral theories usually have a
in real life situations.
Normative theories usually commend some actions and condemn others.
The study of
moral theories, which attempt to understand the nature of normative ethics.
Meta-ethical theories focus on
we understand, know about and mean when we talk about what is right and wrong.
Meta-ethics tries to answer questions like "what is goodness?".
We will study and discuss 2 normative theories:
Where does Utilitarianism come from?
The theory of Utilitarianism dates back to the early Greek philosophers and elements of the theory can be identified in the work of the 18th century Scottish philosopher
It is most famously associated with the English philosophers
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
ohn Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
Utilitarianism reached its peak in the 19th century, however there are philosophers today who support the theory.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
Bentham was a political philosopher and social reformer whose most famous work is his multi-volume
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)
Bentham spent his life outlining the implications of Utilitarianism for a variety of social and political institutions.
He was something of an eccentric who requested that his body be stuffed after his death as a monument; to this day it is kept at University College London where it is occasionally wheeled out to attend lectures and special dinners.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
John Stuart Mill was the son of the intellectual
James Mill (1773-1836)
, himself an advocate of Utilitarianism and a friend of Jeremy Bentham.
John Stuart Mill had an intensive childhood education prescribed by his Father, which led to him completing the reading for a demanding Classics Degree by the age of 10. By the age of 12 he could read Aristotle in the original Greek.
John Stuart Mill went on to become an MP and a prolific influential philosopher whose works include
As a normative theory Utilitarianism is not a theory about what moral terms mean, but is a theory which offers a test which we can use to decide whether an action is right or not.
Utilitarianism is primarily concerned with providing a mechanism for deciding what to do in given situations.
Deeper questions like "what do terms like good and bad refer to?" are tackled by meta-ethics.
The Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP)
The basis of Utilitarianism is what is known as the Greatest Happiness Principle - sometimes abbreviated as GHP.
Mills version is:
Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness and wrongs as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
In other words, the more happiness and the less unhappiness an action produces the more morally praiseworthy it will be. Moreover, the more people we can make happy the better.
This seemingly simple formula for identifying right actions needs some unpacking. If we
this principle carefully we could say that is in in fact composed of three component principles.
What the GHP is saying is that
the only thing that matters is the consequences of action
the only consequence that matters is happiness of unhappiness
the happiness of any one person doesn't count for more thant the happiness of anyone else
These three component principles are called the:
1. the consequentialist principle
2. the hedonic principle
3. the equity principle
A Moral Theory
The Consequentialist Principle
...the only thing that matters is the consequences of action...
Utilitarianism is distinguished from Kantiansim by the fact that
A consequentialist theory is also known as a
It claims that the moral rightness of an action is determined by the consequences that the act produces.
Deontological theory claims that the moral rightness of an action is determined by the notion of
As Mill puts it:
"All action is for the sake of some end and rules of actions take their whole character from the end to which they are subservient".
So for example:
If someone with diabetes collapses and I save their life by giving them a sweet drink, then that action might be deemed the right one. If however, I had killed them by giving the sweet drink, when what they really needed was insulin, the act would be deemed the wrong one.
So by looking at the consequences we are able to differentiate between different alternative courses of action in situations where we are faced with a choice.
One of the main strengths of Utilitarianism is that it can help us resolve
where we must make a choice between competing options.
The reason Mill is a consquentialist is in part due to his
believe all our knowledge is derived from experience,
and this must apply to moral knowledge as well as scientific knowledge.
Definition of a posteriori knowledge:
Basing reasoning on known facts, experience or past events (MEMORIES!).
Mill therefore believes that we cannot know in advance of known facts, experience or past events whether an act will be right or wrong.
Definition of a priori knowledge:
Knowledge that is known without having to investigate it (e.g. all bachelors are unmarried men).
This is not to say that we can't predict the consequences, but prediction is based upon past experience.
If we could know which acts were right and wrong without recourse to experience then this would be a category of knowledge that didn't depend on sense experience.
This type of knowledge is known as
and for empiricists this type of knowledge does not exist.
Definition of Innate Knowledge:
Knowledge that already existed in the mind since birth.
Mill argues that we need a posteriori knowledge to make moral decisions - what do you think his view would be on memory removal, given this can develop our a posteriori knowledge?
Look at your notes on Utilitarianism thus far, do you think it makes sense? Does this seem like a fair theory to apply when making moral decisions? Would you use it - why/why not? Can you recognise a significant problem for consequentialist theories?
As part of your ongoing revision you will make a revision poster that we will add to as we continue to study Utilitarianism.
associated with Utilitarianism
what type of ethical theory Utilitarianism is
- explain what this means in
your own words
(clue: if meta-ethics is concerned with what terms good and bad mean, then what is Utilitarianism)
why Utilitarianism is different from Kantianism
- explain this in
your own words
( clue: if Kantianism is deontological then what is Utilitarianism?)
Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle
quote verbatim - then explain what this means in
your own words
for Utilitarianism and
key terms/words/new vocabularly
and a definition
The Hedonic Principle
"...the only consequence that matters is happiness or unhappiness..."
Hedonism is the view that pleasure or happiness is the only thing worth valuing.
People that live hedonistic lifestyles are often characterised as those who spend all their time eating, drinking and partying - indulging in every possible pleasure!
Philosophers however, use the term 'hedonism' differently.
We recognise that pleasures are not just bodily pleasures, there are intellectual and aesthetic pleasures too like reading a book or appreciating a painting.
What the GHP suggests is that the only consequence of any value is pleasure or happiness.
Some moral choices do not involve getting any happiness at all!
If you were dying of leukemia and were in intense pain, should you end your own life or die an agonising death?
Neither of these options appear to generate any happiness.
Mill and Bentham both regonise that pain and suffering is part of the human condition.
Mill would say on this occassion that we should minimise pain.
Bentham too recognised that pleasure and pain were the twin motivators and goals of all human action;
"...nature has placed manking under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure."
Although it might seem
to claim that humans strive for happiness and the avoidance of pain, the appeal to pleasure or happiness in this theory is
Problem 1: All pleasures are not the same.
Drinking tea is a very different pleasure from receiving your Standard Grade Results.
Problem 2: All pleasures are not morally praiseworthy ends to our action.
Am I really being morally praiseworthy when I stuff my face with cake? Even if I get lots of pleasure from it and nobody is harmed?
We need a way to distinguish between different types of pleasure from one another and ascertaining their relative values.
Bentham and Mill suggested subtly different approaches for doing this.
Next time we will consider:
Bentham's Hedonic Calculus
Bentham's Hedonic Calculus
Bentham devised a quasi-scientific algorithm by which different pleasures, and hence actions, could be compared with one another.
is also known as the
The hedonic calculus has
by which competing pleasures should be rated:
ntensity - How intense will the pleasure be?
uration - How long will the pleasure last?
ertainty - How likely is the pleasure to happen?
ropinquity - How immediate or remote is the pleasure?
ecundity - How likely is it to be followed by similar pleasures?
urity - How likely is it to be followed by pain?
xtent - How many people will experience the pleasure?
That's quite a lot to remember!
memory peg' sentence - peg these new words on to words that you are already familiar with to make you remember them. The funnier it is, the more likely you are to remember the new words!
Miss Glen's example:
You can 'memory peg' using pictures instead if you wish. It usually helps if the name of what you have pictured rhymes or is associated with the word is some other way:
Miss Glen's example:
Number One (1)
is a Bun (like a hotdog or hamburger bun) - I picture the word inside the hotdog bun.
Number Two (2)
is a Shoe - I imagine my favorite shoe with the word inside of it.
Number Three (3)
is a Tree - I imagine the word growing on a tree.
Number Four (4)
is a Door - I imagine the word posted on the door like a decoration!
Number Five (5)
is a Hive (a beehive) - I imagine the term inside the hive, covered with bees.
Number Six (6)
is a Twix - I imagine a Twix wrapper having this word across the packaging instead.
Number Seven (7)
is in Heaven - I imagine the term flying around with wings and a halo.
You know have a memory peg to hang these terms on. Next time, we will examine exactly what Bentham is recommending we do when applying his Hedonic Calculus.
Bentham's Hedonic Calculus
Bentham suggests that we should evaluate the different consequences of competing actions by these criteria.
Say you were faced with a choice of going to see a league football match and going to visit your Grandparents:
The football match may bring you
pleasure, but the
of the pleasure may not be very long.
It may not be
that your team will win at tall and the
of the pleasure may be in question if you have to face the pain of defeat.
of the pleasure may be fairly immediate, but a consideration of the
would suggest that you could have a similar pleasure another time.
that other people will experience pleasure from your attendance is difficult to measure - if you meet your friends there will be a multiplier effect. The price of your admission will contribute in a small way to the happiness of the club owners whose financial stability is slightly enhanced.
If you visited your Grandparents, then the
of the pleasure would be the same
as before, but the
for them could be quite high.
The likelihood of the pleasure is also more
that at the football match. The
of the pleasure is immediate. It is far from remote or difficult to achieve this pleasure, therefore the score for
would be high.
If your Grandparents rarely see you then this would make it a rare pleasure of greater value. Considering the
of the pleasure, it is unlikely to be followed by pain.
A hedonic calculation would require us to multiply all the above scores by the number of people that will experience the
of these pleasures. In this case, up to 3.
In all likelihood, using Bentham's Hedonic Calculus, it would be recommended that you visit your Grandparents rather than go to the football.
The benefit to using Bentham's Hedonic Calculus is that any potential pleasure or pain can be rated on the same scale.
However, there are 7 independent scales making the calculation process impossible.
Bentham doesn't discriminate between pleasures in any way.
Using Bentham's Hedonic Calculus could calculate that eating 6 cream cakes is better than reading a book!
Bentham famously said:
"pushpin is as good as poetry"
Bentham was only concerned with a
distinction between pleasures rather than a
But perhaps poetry really is a higher order pleasure than that of an 18th century pub game...
This was the line taken by Mill. Next time we will look at Mill's Higher and Lower Pleasures.
Mill's Higher and Lower Pleasures
Mill suggests that we must be clearer about how we define the word 'pleasure'.
Pleasure cannot only include the sensual body pleasures, but also the intellectual pleasures of the mind.
Mill ranks intellectual pleasures above pleasures of the body to give, arguably, a more sophisticated account of pleasure than that of Bentham.
Higher pleasures are those of the cultivated mind such as;
Only humans can enjoy these pleasures and they are therefore distinctive of our special status as rational beings.
Lower pleasures are those pleasures we share with the animals such as;
Mill encapsulates his approach with the quote:
"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."
So, according to Mill, when faced with a choice between two pleasures one should assess them not in the purely quantitative way recommended by Bentham, but in a qualitative way.
Should I read a Shakespeare play or eat a family size bar of Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut?
Mill would say you should read the Shakespeare play.
Mill justifies championing higher pleasures by saying that if you ask anyone who has had experience of higher and lower pleasures we would always find that they prefer the higher ones.
"Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowances of a beast's pleasures."
He calls such people
Such people would never want to sacrifice their higher pleasures for a life of lower ones, even if they occasionally resort to base pleasures.
An obvious objection to this is that there are clearly people who have experienced both sorts of pleasure but who eventually sink into a life of idleness and sensual indulgence.
In response to this Mill argues that the:
"capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance."
He then adds:
"Men...addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying."
So...higher pleasures take effort and require sustained engagement, but once we have sampled them, we will always prefer them...even if we don't always make the right choices.
The Equity Principle
This aspect of the GHP emphasises that
everyone's happiness counts equally
in our deliberations.
If we based our criterion on the form of hedonism that is concerned only with one's own pleasure and pain, we would be left with a different consequentialist normative theory known as
; the view that we should pursue our own self-interests.
However, once we add the principle of equity we arrive at the GHP; that
we should perform those acts that generate the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people
This adds a more
to Utilitarianism in that it can now account for
actions which help others rather than ourselves
However, it is important not to be misled by this articulation of the GHP and
be aware of its implications for individuals and society
The difference between Utilitarianism and Egoism means that
following the Utilitarian path will not always guarantee your own happiness
The notion of equity implies that there
might be occasions when I will be obliged to perform actions which don't benefit me
as an individual at all.
Discuss with a partner any examples you can think of...
When would a Utilitarian say you're obliged to perform an action which will not lead to your own happiness; that will not benefit you as an individual?
Miss Glen's example:
If you were the only millionaire in town and you lived as a recluse, you might be obliged to pay a greater percentage of your income tax than everyone else in the town to pay for services that you personally never use.
Maximising the total benefit is not the same as maximising the number of people who benefit
: it may not always be a 'greater number' of people who are made happy by an act.
Bentham and Mill believed in trying to achieve the greatest aggregate happiness
and this aggregate can be achieved a number of ways.
Work with a partner....
Try to think of an example when the majority could all receive a little happiness.
Try to think of an example when a minority could be made extremely happy.
Miss Glen's example...
If we had one million pounds to give away as a lottery prize, it would probably generate greater aggregate happiness to give one hundred people ten thousand pounds each than to give one million people one pound each.
So long as the
aggregate happiness happiness is maximised, there is nothing wrong with minority interests being served
on certain occasions.
Meetings the needs of minority interests could implicate upon society; both negatively and positively....discuss with a partner and feedback.
'Act' and 'Rule' Utilitarianism
As the theory of Utilitarianism was developed and refined over the years, there emerged 2 distinct branches of Utilitarianism...
of the two since it takes
literally the requirement
examine the consequences of each possible course of action in any situation
when making our moral deliberations.
Miss Glen's example...
Imagine you found a wallet on a bus which contained money - should you hand the wallet in to the police?
An Act Utilitarian would say it depends on other aspects of the individual situation...
If the wallet belonged to a millionaire who wouldn't miss the money and you were an unemployed single parent who needed to pay for a life saving operation for your child, then greater happiness might result if you kept it.
However, if the wallet were lost by a single parent and found by a millionaire, then the recommended action may be different.
doesn't believe assessing individual situations is appropriate, or even possible
Instead Rule Utilitarians believe that
we should stick to general rules of conduct
such as 'don't lie' or 'always keep your promises' because these rules
in turn tend to produce good consequences overall
Miss Glen's example...
Returning to the example of the wallet found on the bus...
If you were an unemployed single parent who had found a millionaire's wallet, it doesn't matter what the details of the particular situation are. You should stick to the rule that tends to promote most happiness which, in this case, could be the rule 'always return lost property'.
Now, on this occasion, it probably won't promote the best possible consequences to hand the wallet back. The Act Utilitarian would say that you and your sick child's happiness far outweigh the fleeting gratitude of the millionaire who receives his lost wallet back.
However, by sticking to the rule we promote the observance of a practice which benefits society overall - giving lost property back.
If there were not a generally accepted practice of handing back lost property then this would generate far more pain for society as a whole.
Therefore, we ought to promote this sort of behaviour whenever we can, even on particular occasions when it doesn't generate any immediate benefit to us.
Is someone who always asks 'What will happen if I do this?'
Always asks 'What would happen if there were such a rule?'
If we were to adopt a Rule Utilitarian stance, how strictly would we stick to these rules?
Should you never break a promise...even if it were to save someone's life?
Should you never tell a lie...even if it were to save someone's feelings?
Some philosophers have responded to this by taking either a
would be to
insist the rules
for fear of undermining the practice, which they designed to preserve.
deviating from fixed rules on special occasions
- if it were necessary to save a life and nobody would be adversely affected or even find out about the rule breaking.
Whilst taking a hard line might seem unnecessarily severe it could be argued that if Rule Utilitarianism tolerated rule breaking of any argument, then it dissolves into simple Act Utilitarianism where each individual case must be considered on its own merits.