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UTILITARIANISM: the ethical theory for all times.
UTILITARIAN ETHICS: an introductory explanation

Short Encyclopedia Britannica Article


The sees of Utilitarianism are found in the history of thought long before Bentham.

Antecedents of Utilitarianism among the ancients
A hedonistic theory of the value of life is found in the early 5th century BC in the ethics of Aristippus of Cyrene, founder of the Cyrenaic school, and 100 years later in that of Epicurus, founder of an ethic of retirement, and their followers in ancient Greece. The seeds of ethical universalism are found in the doctrines of the rival ethical
school of Stoicism and in Christianity.

Utilitarianism is an effort to provide an answer to the practical question What ought a man to do? Its answer is that he ought to act so as to produce the best consequences possible.

Basic concepts
In the notion of consequences the Utilitarian includes all of the good and bad produced by the act, whether arising after the act has been performed or during its performance. If the difference in the consequences of alternative acts is not great, some Utilitarians do not regard the choice between them as a moral issue. According to Mill, acts should be classified as morally right or wrong only if the consequences are of such significance that a person would wish to see the agent compelled, not merely persuaded and exhorted, to act in the preferred manner.

In assessing the consequences of actions, Utilitarianism relies upon some theory of intrinsic value: something is held to be good in itself, apart from further consequences, and all other values are believed to derive their worth from their relation to this intrinsic good as a means to an end. Bentham and Mill were hedonists; i.e., they analyzed happiness as a balance of pleasure over pain and believed that these feelings alone are of intrinsic value and disvalue. Utilitarians also assume that it is possible to compare the intrinsic values produced by two alternative actions and to estimate which would have better consequences. Bentham believed that a hedonic calculus is theoretically possible. A moralist, he maintained, could sum up the units of pleasure and the units of pain for everyone likely to be affected, immediately and in the future, and could take the balance as a measure of the overall good or evil tendency of an action. Such precise measurement as Bentham envisioned is perhaps not essential, but it is nonetheless necessary for the Utilitarian to make some interpersonal comparisons of the values of the effects of alternative courses of action

Who are we to blame:  the utilitarian theory of retribution--jk


Utilitarian ethics as a guidance for government and personal action is based upon the maximization of the good:  by government for those within the society, and by individuals.  It is a code for public actions and of personal actions.  The issue of what should be done about behavior that produces significant harm for a society, on a government level, it would be to for to select policies which would reduce the overall harm.  A policy of warehousing that costs $45,000 per year is producing harm to society, harm to the individual, and harm to those separated from that person.  To minimize these, a policy of retraining, of supervision upon release, and of making the conditions of confinement only moderately odious.  Odious enough so that those in need of assistance don ‘t see for example robbing a bank as way to get into a job training & drug rehabilitation program. 


Utilitarian society goes not just to the issue of personal actions and social policy, but also to the very nature of society.  It was the understood question in Plato’s Republic:  How to build the ideal society?  Utilitarian theory is applied not just to the conditions of incarceration, but also to that of employment, goods and service, and the distribution of wealth.  Utilitarians is about maximizing the good.  And if an area such as administration of programs is found wanting, then positive change is required.  Plato gives us the first extensive example of this approach.  


Improving conditions of confinement and release is not an isolated issue, but ought to be part of an overall program to make society better.


One way to view society is that like of nature, full of niches.  A niche is an environmental slot which accommodate a certain number animals.  Thus there are in a given area certain number of seed eating birds, of insect eating birds, of nectar gathering birds.  And within this broad categorization, there would be birds that can eat seeds with hard shells, and those that can’t. In our society there are certain behavior niches.  Conditions support a the various mass religions, gambling casinos, sporting good stores, etc.  The same too with biker clubs, drug dealers, and robbers.  Changes in conditions entails changes in the number and type of churches, of sporting good stores, etc.  Changes in social conditions and the numbers of bikers, recreational drug users, and thieves change.  The change of niches results in a changing of enterprises.  The Roosevelt New Deal had within the constraints of capitalism a vision of changing niches, of maximizing the number of sober, hardworking citizens.  We need to get back to Plato, to making government a good parent. 


And we need a public-interested media (not our corporate media), one which will raise repeatedly the questions of what is the good life and what should government be doing to promote it?  We need a media which does not give the corporate answer of removing regulations for the sake of profits, and thereby presuming that the law of the jungle is the road to the good life.  We have gone from the wisdom born of the depression to the idiocy of the 1920s and the era of robber barons.  History is repeating itself:  corporate greed is not the way to build a healthy society. 

Another similar introduction to utilitarianism

Utilitarianism: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Kerby Anderson


You have probably heard a politician say he or she passed a piece of legislation because it did the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. Perhaps you have heard someone justify their actions because it was for the greater good.

In this article, we are going to talk about the philosophy behind such actions. The philosophy is known as utilitarianism. Although it is a long word, it is in common usage every day. It is the belief that the sole standard of morality is determined by its usefulness.

Philosophers refer to it as a "teleological" system. The Greek word "telos" means end or goal. This means that this ethical system determines morality by the end result. Whereas Christian ethics are based on rules, utilitarianism is based on results.

Utilitarianism began with the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarianism gets its name from Bentham's test question, "What is the use of it?" He conceived of the idea when he ran across the words "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" in Joseph Priestly's Treatise of Government.

Jeremy Bentham developed his ethical system around the idea of pleasure. He built it on ancient hedonism which pursued physical pleasure and avoided physical pain. According to Bentham, the most moral acts are those which maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This has sometimes been called the "utilitarian calculus." An act would be moral if it brings the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain.

John Stuart Mill modified this philosophy and developed it apart from Bentham's hedonistic foundation. Mill used the same utilitarian calculus but instead focused on maximizing the general happiness by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number. While Bentham used the calculus in a quantitative sense, Mill used this calculus in a qualitative sense. He believed, for example, that some pleasures were of higher quality than others.

Utilitarianism has been embraced by so many simply because it seems to make a good deal of sense and seems relatively simple to apply. However, when it was first proposed, utilitarianism was a radical philosophy. It attempted to set forth a moral system apart from divine revelation and biblical morality. Utilitarianism focused on results rather than rules. Ultimately the focus on the results demolished the rules.

In other words, utilitarianism provided for a way for people to live moral lives apart from the Bible and its prescriptions. There was no need for an appeal to divine revelation. Reason rather than revelation was sufficient to determine morality.

Founders of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham was a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law and one of the founders of utilitarianism. He developed this idea of a utility and a utilitarian calculus in the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781).

In the beginning of that work Bentham wrote: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it."{1}

Bentham believed that pain and pleasure not only explain our actions but also help us define what is good and moral. He believed that this foundation could provide a basis for social, legal, and moral reform in society.

Key to his ethical system is the principle of utility. That is, what is the greatest good for the greatest number?

Bentham wrote: "By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness." {2}

John Stuart Mill was a brilliant scholar who was subjected to a rigid system of intellectual discipline and shielded from boys his own age. When Mill was a teenager, he read Bentham. Mill said the feeling rushed upon him "that all previous moralists were superseded." He believed that the principle of utility "gave unity to my conception of things. I now had opinions: a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of what could be made the principle outward purpose of a life."{3}

Mill modified Bentham's utilitarianism. Whereas Bentham established an act utilitarianism, Mill established a rule utilitarianism. According to Mill, one calculates what is right by comparing the consequences of all relevant agents of alternative rules for a particular circumstance. This is done by comparing all relevant similar circumstances or settings at any time.   The modification was made in order to justify the common moral principles such as those that bar lying and adultery.  It seems that the same conclusion can be reached by analysis of circumstance with act utilitarianism, though of course there is convenience in having a set of rules. 

Both Mill and Bentham subscribed to the hedonic calculus:  intensity, duration, propinquity, certainty, fecundity, purity, and extent.  (1) Intensity, the strength of the pleasure/pain.  (2) Duration.  (3) Propinquity, how soon will it come?  (4) Certainty, likelihood.  (5) Fecundity, the ability to produce more distant pleasures.  (6) Purity, the consequential amount of pain compared with the total pleasure.  (7) Extent, the number of people affected.  However, Mill held that not all pleasures are equal, certain ones such as poetry, Mill held, are intrinsically better.  However, it seems to me that Bentham’s formulation of the hedonistic calculus is able to account for the effects of poetry, as opposed to watching cock fighting, upon character development.   This and other issues, such as the utilitarian theory of justice are part of the quagmire of moral philosophy. 

Utilitarianism continues to this day as a viable, academic theory, with articles published thereon in journals of moral philosophy, and on essentially the same issues raised by Mill and Bentham.  The common person of course looks to the value of what is produced by an action as the leading factor in determining moral praise and blame. 

{Last 2 paragraphs by JK}



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