One of the most dominant moral theories in the study of philosophy is utilitarianism. This theory purports that the most appropriate moral action should be the one that capitalizes on maximizing utility. Utilitarian theorists believe that the rationale behind morality is to make life pleasurable by providing good things while decreasing all elements that bring pain and misery. Utilitarianism is drawn from John Stuart Mill, who emphasized that right actions contribute towards the greatest good for most society members (Gustafson 327). Society and individuals should endeavor to embrace utilitarian principles to benefit from democratic practices and human freedom. Thus, utilitarianism can be perceived as a quantitative, as well as a reductionist approach to morality.
Pros and Cons of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is instinctive because it associates happiness with morality rather than probably seeking morality for happiness. Utilitarianism has embraced some aspects of consequentialism, where the consequences of human actions ascertain whether the actions were desirable or detrimental. For instance, some acts such as murder and rape can be termed as wrong due to their consequences. Mill’s form of utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory because it emphasizes on the welfare of the masses, and it calls on individuals to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the greater common good (Gustafson 330). Act utilitarianism involves assessing the consequences of individual’s action in an attempt to measure its moral worth (Hinman 131). In an act of utilitarianism, there are no exceptions, as each case is judged based on individual merits.
Utilitarianism offers simple and clear guidelines concerning the rewards of doing good and the repercussions of wrongdoing. For instance, if a driver understands that drinking and driving is wrong, then he/she is bound to restrain from acting unethically, and eventually save his/her life. Rule of utilitarianism affirms that individuals should act according to rules that guarantee the greatest value for the society as a whole (Hinman 134). When individuals agree to be guided by these concepts, they can attain the happiness that they desire to have. Seeking common ethical values involves searching for a common idea for the good, since all that an individual needs is a common vision to make decisions that offer universal guidelines (Gustafson 329).
The greatest advantage in the promotion of happiness is that it is universal. Every individual knows what it feels like to be happy, hence, individuals are capable of working for a physical human good (Newman and Woolgar 30). When everything is held constant, individuals can unanimously agree that pain is undesirable and pleasure is good. The pursuit of happiness is capable of guiding all human action, as what individuals perceive as happiness applies to all.
Utilitarianism is a strong egalitarian principle, which perceives happiness in equal worth, without considering who holds it. Since individuals who are worse off in society are likely to gain more happiness after receiving an increment in their resources, utilitarianism becomes a fundamentally re-distributive doctrine that necessitates well-off individuals in society to provide for the poor until their happiness is restored (Newman and Woolgar 31). Utilitarianism is capable of halting redistribution when the poor no longer receive benefits after additional resources.
Individuals can promote social harmony, fairness, and objectivity through the principles of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism encourages the need to pursue the ideal in society for the benefit of the majority. According to Gustafson, utilitarianism does not focus on individual’s happiness, but rather the happiness of the entire humanity (330). In the maintenance of justice and other virtues, utilitarianism aims at long-term benefits and not immediate benefits. The theory asserts that if an action fails to impress anyone, then that action is ineffective. Utilitarianians will always endeavor to evaluate how their choice of action affects people.
The impact of utilitarianism on happiness is quite strong such that it cannot allow regular form of abuse. Rule-utilitarianism asserts that rights can be warranted based on the notion that rules require to be enforced on human action to increase happiness, since biases can overwhelm individual’s capacity to make decisions (Newman and Woolgar 31). Rule-utilitarianism strives to determine whether rules maximize utility or tend to bring good consequences. Rules are always clear, and are not applied selectively based on situations. For instance, the traffic rule that advice motorists to obey traffic lights does not state that motorists should move on when the light is red, even when the road is clear.
Utilitarianism compels individuals to carry negative responsibilities for things that they failed to do, though they had the capacity to maximize happiness. According to Utilitarianism, individuals are held morally responsible for failing to prevent others from committing errors that reduce overall happiness. For instance, if you see an individual crossing the road and unfortunately, a speeding vehicle hits that individual; you are responsible for the accident because the injured person becomes a burden to society. Thus, Utilitarianism is a harsh theory that demands individuals to sacrifice a lot in order to appear morally upright in society.
Although individuals can claim to be happy, it is absolutely impossible to understand the level of happiness in each individual. This happens both in practice and in principle. Thus, utilitarianism, as any other discipline, is accountable for taking an individual’s preference and concluding it as universal (Newman and Woolgar 31). Different things can add happiness to different people, but a room for maximizing utility still exists. Utilitarians ignore the need for interpersonal comparisons in the measurement of happiness, as what they value most is whether an individual is happy or unhappy.
Utilitarianism disregards the privileges of the minority, particularly when underlining anti-utilitarian principles. Utilitarianism is not just a matter of the greatest number, but rather an assurance of overall happiness for the majority in society. The issue of security, as underlined by Mill is of utmost importance in the strife for happiness. However, when an individual’s life is in danger, and irritated protestors come for his rescue, the protesters face the risk of arrest by the police (Gustafson 343). Utilitarianism is usually blamed for being a totalitarian and homogenous on matters of individual liberty, thus, becoming irreconcilable with human rights. For utilitarians, slavery is acceptable if it benefits the whole population.
Utilitarianism does not value equality because it is not involved in building it. In the distribution of state resources, some groups of people, such as disabled, do not benefit the same way as other people; hence, utilitarianism proposes that such people should be deprived of state resources (Newman and Woolgar 31). If happiness is increased through infringing the human rights of a few individuals, then such an act is acceptable in utilitarianism since turning human rights violations into rules can reduce happiness.
Should societies and individuals follow the utilitarian way of life?
Applying utilitarian theory demands individuals or society to determine (1) who is influenced by the action; (2) the positive and negative consequences of choosing an alternative action; and (3) a choice out of alternative action, which can guarantee maximum societal utility. Societies should embrace utilitarian ideology to enhance its living standards since utilitarianism revolves around cultivating happiness for the greatest number. According to Hinman, utilitarians aspire for a world that offers pleasure to everyone (152). Utilitarianism is much acceptable to many people because it tends to be relatively simple to execute. Even if individuals do not understand the rules, they can apply utilitarian principles given that they only have to focus on the results. Utilitarianism necessitates individuals to balance their interests with others in society through promoting social good.
In ethical theory, utilitarianism claims that the most appropriate social principle should be the one that offers the greatest total welfare. Total welfare in this case is the optimal distribution of resources, which enhances social good. A successful society is the one that encourages competition in its initial stage of development, but not making competition a goal. Competition is necessary for capital accumulation, but capital accumulation should be slowed down if society is to attain equal distribution of welfare (Persky 301). In addition, workers can enhance their happiness in society if they opt to join cooperative associations, which increase workers’ independence and promote justice among them.
Democracy is perceived as one way that society can cultivate happiness through egalitarian principles. Apart from distribution of wealth, the quality of governance has a significant impact on people’s happiness since governments have the capacity to offer safety, health care, as well as promote justice in society (Ott 354). According to Ott, the procedural utility can be attained from living and directing acts according to institutionalized procedures, which promote positive sense of self. The aspects of autonomy, relatedness, as well as proficiency, can be attained through democratic process. Being free and equal is part of ensuring that everyone is happy in society. Good governance incorporates effective formulation and execution of sound policies, in addition to respect of citizens through permitting economic and social interaction. Thus, utilitarianism enables individuals to enjoy freedom of thought, religion, and choice. In addition, a society that allows rights to due process and equality of opportunity is bound to remain happy, as violation of rights is the greatest enemy of pleasure.
Moral education is essential for a society built on ethical culture. In this case, culture is the social environment that harbors humans, and incorporates social, political, as well as economic features that shape human behavior. Utilitarianism depends on education, as well as advancement of social ties to offer support to individuals’ moral motivation. Mill believed that individuals have feelings toward other individuals, and when those feelings are nurtured and trained through education, individuals can begin to perceive themselves as members of society who mind about others people’s welfare (Gustafson 331). Society can fight impartiality, disharmony, and biases, through accepting utilitarianism principle that encourage policies that enhance the social good.
Singer’s argument concerning utilitarianism begins by asserting that living ethically is equated to adapting a standard of living that can only be justified by self. However, justifications cannot qualify as ethical if they only meant to benefit single individuals. Thus, Singer’s argument implies that individuals should go beyond their natural perspectives to extend their justifications in a manner that interest others (Buckle 216). The universal features of ethics are what constitute utilitarianism, since the natural desire that an individual harbors is modified into the desire that makes it possible for other people hold such desire. Thus, utilitarianism can be expressed as a default setting in ethical thinking, which enables societies and individuals to judge their actions.
Utilitarianism should be embraced in business if individuals agree to perceive business as means of modifying culture and society. Utilitarianism is the ethical viewpoint that assists individuals to deal with the ethical relationship and tasks between businesses and society (Gustafson 326). Business enables access of goods and services to society while creating jobs, tax revenue, and social wellbeing of individuals. When individuals have access to goods and services, they feel contented; hence, business creates happiness and minimizes sufferings through social connections. When a company embraces utilitarian ideals, it treats its employees fairly and justly and eventually produces the greatest happiness for its customers and other stakeholders. Additionally, utilitarianism fits business practices well, particularly when businesses act as means of transforming culture. Profit-maximization cost-benefit analysis that is built on self-interest can qualify as utilitarianism since it focuses on ethical interests together with profits (327).
In as much as society strives to cultivate goodness in its practices, human beings are vulnerable to “the positive troubles of life.” Mill observed that human beings are prone to suffer from poverty and illnesses, in addition to “the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection” (Persky 292). Some of the mentioned evils are beyond human control, thus, it is just by luck that some individuals are free from them. Poor people earn little not because they do not work, but because of inequality in society. The effluents may not be working at all, but they hold the means to production. Income inequality is somehow justified in utilitarianism because utilitarianism values quantity rather than distribution.
Despite numerous benefits that utilitarianism offers to society, the theory has failed to offer an exhaustive explanation of moral life. Utilitarians are usually confronted by the dilemma of breaching the rights of minority in society through act utilitarianism (Hinman 152). Some philosophers recommend that there is a point at which individuals cannot fall even when situations demand them to do so while others suggest less susceptible ways to tackle minority issues. In addition, utilitarianism does not emphasize motives when contemplating on taking actions. Matters of personal relationships may demand individuals to consider motives to enhance their moral life.
In life, individuals will always strive to avoid pain and seek ways that enhance their pleasure. Utilitarianism advocates for the greatest happiness to be enjoyed by the greatest number in society. Act utilitarianism encourages actions that maximize utility, but advices individuals avoid worshipping rules if their acts are morally correct. Utilitarian standards are flexible and open to different possibilities in life, as they are driven by acts and rules. They apply common sense because they judge actions as either good or bad. A society that follows utilitarianism guidelines is more successful than societies that restrain from utilitarian principles because it avoids actions that reduce pleasure and focus on activities that benefit society as a whole.
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Newman, Debbie, and Ben Woolgar. Pros and Cons: A Debater’s Handbook. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.
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