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something wrong with a crude and simple type of moral
For the logical consequences of such a view do indeed
The utilitarian moral theory, urging us always to act so as to
maximize the sum total of welfare among everyone affected
by what we do, was stated in the eighteenth century by the
English philosopher Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832).
Bentham gathered around himself a circle of disciples,
including the economist James Mill (1773–1863) and his
philosophically very talented son, John Stuart Mill (1806–73).
These philosophers were united not only by a common
philosophical creed, but also by a social reformatory desire.
They questioned traditional laws, institutions and customs,
and they argued that existing systems of education, criminal
justice and political institutions should be subjected to radical
In order to get a better grasp of utilitarianism, it would
be a good idea to adopt a terminology suitable to the
Among utilitarians it is common practice to use some
moral terms in a slightly technical sense.
A sharp distinction is made between actions that are
right and wrong. If an action is not right, then it is
wrong. And if an action is not wrong, then it is right.
The actions we ‘ought’ to do, or the actions that are
‘obligatory’ for us (these expressions are
synonymous), form a sub-class of the actions that are
right for us to do. One way of explaining this would be
to say that it would be wrong not to perform this
Note that we are speaking here of particular actions,
such as the action a certain agent performs at a
certain time (my writing this right now, for example),
not generic actions (or types of actions), such as
stealing, lying, killing, and so forth.
Particular actions can be said to be instances of
generic actions. They are typically performed by
individual human beings, but they can also be
performed by institutions (such as a government) or
collectives (such as a group of individuals).
collectives 25 Utilitarianism
Note also that according to this terminology it is possible
that, in a certain situation, there are several right options
open to an agent. However, in a particular situation one
alternative at most can be obligatory for an agent to
Given this terminology, we can now state the utilitarian
criterion of rightness of particular actions as follows: an
action is right if and only if in the situation there was no
alternative to it which would have resulted in a greater sum
total of welfare in the world.
Remember again that if the action is not right, then it is
wrong. This means that if there was something the agent
could have done instead of the action he or she actually
performed which would have resulted in a greater sum
total of welfare in the world, then he or she acted wrongly.
total Utilitarianism- Hedonistic (Bentham)
What is it that we ought to maximize?
According to classical utilitarianism we ought to maximize
happiness or well-being. This version of utilitarianism is usually
called hedonistic utilitarianism.
Many contemporary utilitarians have abandoned it, but this is
still the most plausible version of utilitarianism.
Furthermore, in empirical happiness studies, results of which
have recently been much publicized and discussed, hedonism
is more or less taken for granted.
According to Bentham (1748 – 1832) happiness is pleasure and
the absence of pain. So, our moral obligation is to maximise
the overall amount of pleasure, and minimize the overall
amount of pain. This is known as Hedonistic Utilitarianism.
What is presupposed by hedonistic utilitarianism is that
each sentient being, at any time, is at a certain level of
We may speak of this as the hedonic situation of the
individual. What matters is the hedonic situation of an
individual at a given time, that is, how this situation at this
moment is experienced by this person.
Does it feel better than a minute ago?
Does it feel roughly the same? Or does it feel worse?
Questions like these are meaningful according to
hedonistic utilitarianism, in so far as they identify welfare
Utilitarianism 29 Utilitarianism
According to hedonistic utilitarianism, there are also
situations that it is worse to experience than not to
experience anything at all.
What the theory presupposes is that the kind of
representation of, say, the day of an individual, as
shown in Figure 2.1, is meaningful.
Let us assume that this is a day in my life. On the y
axis we can plot the degree of well-being, and on the x
axis the passage of time.
The day starts when my alarm clock goes off. I leave a
state of dreamless sleep and, for a moment...
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- Fall '12
- The American