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Utilitarianism

Page history last edited by Andrea Brownstein 11 years, 9 months ago

 

 

PRIMER ON THE ELEMENTS AND FORMS OF UTILITARIANISM

R. N. Johnson


Utilitarianism consists of two doctrines: A theory of what is good, and a theory of what is right. Utilitarianism's theory of what is right is consequentialism, or the doctrine that the morally right option in any circumstance is that option which brings about the most good, or the best consequences; any other option is wrong. Utilitarians refer to the option that brings about the best consequences, or "maximizes the good", as being the optimific alternative. Hence, the right option is the optimific option. Hereafter, I will use this locution.  Note that an option which produces the most good also, and by definition, produces the least bad consequences. Hence, there can be a right alternative even if the only alternatives produce bad consequences (e.g., other things equal, the right dentist to go to is the one who produces the least pain.)

 

Utilitarians all agree that what is good is "utility"--human well-being or welfare. However, they disagree about what human well-being or welfare is. Classical utilitarians were hedonistic: They held that human well being consists of pleasure. In holding this view, they did not, of course, deny that human well-being consists of community, self-development, wealth, and so on. What they claimed was that each of these things were either a means to, or associated with, pleasure, and it is this association with pleasure which makes them count as parts of human well-being. However, because of the difficulty of measuring, and so maximizing, amounts of  pleasure, few now hold this doctrine, and there are a variety of theories of what is good among contemporary utilitarians. We will discuss this below.

 

Utilitarians  also all agree that what is right is the optimific alternative. They are all consequentialists in this sense. However, they disagree about what things should be evaluated according to the consequentialist criterion -- particular actions, character traits, rules and standards of behavior or large-scale institutions. Again, the classical utilitarian view held that particular actions are what must be evaluated according to the consequentialist criterion. Hence, they held that what makes an action right is that it produced the best consequences. However, many disagree with this, as we will see; there are a variety of forms of consequentialism that utilitarians hold.

 

The utilitarian view can be applied either to all spheres of practical life, or can be restricted to some particular sphere. Utilitarianism as a comprehensive doctrine expresses an outlook that can be applied to all practical spheres, for instance, both to the private actions of individuals and to the political structures of societies. Hence, comprehensive utilitarianism is the view that what makes actions right or wrong is determined by the utilitarian standard, and this very same standard also tells us which forms of government, societal institutions, laws and policies are just or unjust. But when utilitarianism is expresses a view only about the latter, it is merely a political doctrine, and we will call it political utilitarianism. Rawls and other political philosophers mainly are concerned with political utilitarianism. Rawls refers to the subject of a political theory as the "basic structure" of society--its form of government, institutions and policies--rather than to the actions of the individuals who live in the society.

 

 

[http://web.missouri.edu/~johnsonrn/utilnote.html]

 

For an comprehensive resource for untilitarian philosophers, follow this link: http://ethics.sandiego.edu/theories/Utilitarianism/index.asp

 

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