Evaluate the view that Utilitarianism continues to offer a useful way of resolving moral dilemmas. Use knowledge and understanding across your course of study to answer this question.
In your response to this question, you must include how developments in religion and ethics have been influenced by one of the following:
· Philosophy of religion
· New testament studies
· The study of a religion
Utilitarianism is a relativist and consequentialist ethical argument based on the principle of utility that proposes that all actions must produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people. The principle of utility, as mentioned above, is the basis of utilitarianism. The principle of utility suggests an action is ‘good’ if it brings about the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain for the greatest number. The founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought this was essential in resolving moral dilemmas, as in Bentham’s eyes he felt that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain” and therefore the quantity of each is important. Though this form of utilitarianism, quantitative utilitarianism, was founded by Bentham in the late 18th century, there have been many other scholars and moral philosophers that have created many other versions of utilitarianism that have use when solving moral dilemmas.
Bentham, along with the creation of quantitative utilitarianism, created a ‘calculus’ based upon seven criteria that Bentham believed could scientifically calculate pleasure , each segment of criteria is a step that puts an action into perspective to reach a so called final calculation. The seven criteria are: duration, intensity, propinquity, extent, certainty, purity, and fecundity. The felicific calculus, or hedonic calculus, allows situations to be scientifically calculated for the ‘best’ outcome. The calculus allows us to ‘scientifically’ explore the seven key features of situations providing a good analysis of a situation. It is also based on the principle of utility, which provides the best outcome for the majority, not for the few. However, arguably, although the calculus makes everyone equal, logically, we do not value everyone’s pleasure the same. This is a significant factor in moral decision making as we are more likely to sacrifice the unknown majority’s pleasure for your own or for friends and family. Similarly, the calculus is too extensive and complicated to be implemented into a busy life as it takes too long to make a decision following the seven criteria.
Although Bentham created utilitarianism, he formed a platform for other scholars to develop on his original idea, and the first person to do so was the Scottish philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill. He had similar views on how utilitarianism can be used to solve moral dilemmas as instead of focusing on the quantity of pleasure created in a situation, Mill focused on the quality of the pleasure created. Mill believed the quality of the pleasure was more important and thus, he developed the theory of qualitative utilitarianism. Mill emphasised, and based his theory, upon the idea that there are many different ‘types’ of pleasure, and categorised these pleasures into two sections, ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. His thought was that there is something different about pleasure of the mind such as art, music, literature, philosophy and bodily pleasures, alcohol and other material objects. He also recognises that we have a strong internal conviction that an action cannot be purely ‘right’ or ‘good’ based on the fact that it produces pleasure – other principles need to be considered. For Mill, the real moral approach involves the pursuit of these ‘higher’ mental goods: mental, cultural and spiritual.
However, Mill’s utilitarianism has its weaknesses. Firstly, people do not always strive for higher pleasures. This is because lower pleasures in many cases are more satisfactory and require little investment. The philosopher Henry Sidgwick identified a key problem when identifying this theory’s use for solving dilemmas; how, in practice, does one distinguish between higher and lower pleasures, and how does one distinguish one higher pleasure from another? If all cultural and spiritual activities provide the same sum of pleasure and happiness, presumably it does not matter which one we choose to undertake at any time. If reading Shakespeare and painting watercolours all produce the same degree of pleasure- there is nothing to choose between them. He also posed the question – where do physically and intellectually demanding pursuits, such as sailing, play acting, advanced Kung-Fu, fit into the higher/lower pleasures distinction? Sidgwick recognised that the difficulties are endless.
Though Mill and Bentham pioneered the first ideas about utilitarianism however there have been a number of modern utilitarian’s who posed their own forms of the theory which they believe can act as a way to solve dilemmas. Peter Singer, though not the founder, argues today for preference utilitarianism. He proposes a utilitarian system with the ‘best interests’ of the individuals concerned at the heart of the ethical decision making. Singer’s formulation of utilitarianism replaces ‘pleasure’ with ‘best interests’. He argues utilitarianism stands as an ethical system unless some non-utilitarian moral rules are proposed that come with good reasons for rejecting a purely utilitarian approach. Preference utilitarianism is a good moral dilemma solver as Singer also included minority groups into his theory – he felt that all minorities and individuals should be taken into account when considering what is best for everyone.
Furthermore, another notable utilitarian theory is Karl Popper’s: negative utilitarianism which instead prioritised the reduction of suffering above the maximisation of pleasure, and therefore, when approaching a situation, a person should make a decision that will produce the least amount of pain, regardless of pleasure. This theory has some practical value in that, for example, a starving community would benefit more from a reduction in its suffering, by means of food and medical care, than being sent a computer, or tickets to a concert.
However, advocates of more traditional forms of utilitarianism have suggested that the ultimate aim of negative utilitarianism would be to find the quickest and least painful method of killing the greatest number of people to put them out of their misery. Negative utilitarianism allows terrible acts such as these simply because the choice may produce a low amount of suffering. It also raises the question of how much suffering is too great. There are some goods that cannot be experienced without some degree of suffering, for example, to show compassion, a person needs to be in pain, so the reduction of all pain to a minimum would reduce the opportunity for human growth.
Act utilitarianism is often seen as the most natural interpretation of the utilitarian ideal. If our aim is always to produce the best results, it seems plausible to think that in each case of deciding what is the right thing to do, we should consider the available options (i.e. what actions could be performed), predict their outcomes, and approve of the action that will produce the most good. Whereas Rule utilitarians believe that we can maximise utility only by setting up a moral code that contains rules. The correct moral rules are those whose inclusion in our moral code will produce better results than other possible rules Act utilitarianism, in some cases, can allow clearly immoral actions like torturing children if it produces the greatest amount of happiness. But, in ‘Rule’ utilitarianism, an action is only good if it complies with the rules, which, if everyone followed, would lead to the greatest amount of pleasure. This immediately rules torture out as the victim will not be; highlighting ‘Rule’ utilitarianism as having a clear advantage over ‘Act’ when it comes to assessing their ability to solve moral dilemmas.
Utilitarianism’s ability to try and help resolve moral dilemmas can also be linked to the New Testament and the work of Jesus Christ, specifically the golden rule mentioned in Matthew 7:12. John Mill likened the principle of utility to Jesus’ golden rule “love your neighbour as yourself”; after all, utilitarianism insists that morality is based solely upon benevolence. Mill therefore arrives at the conclusion that one can thus best serve the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of his own. This is the very principle that Jesus lived by. But perhaps, the best way in which Mill’s principle of utilitarianism coincides with that of the Golden Rule is found in his idea of ‘universal benevolence’. Thus, it is safe to infer that Mill’s principle of utilitarianism manages to capture the essence of the Golden Rule to some degree
To conclude, despite the work of the modern utilitarian’s, such as Peter Singer and Karl Popper, utilitarianism is still a primitive ethical guide to moral decision making, as all versions, complicated or not, require planning the outcomes of situations, working out the effect of your actions, and other impossibilities to calculate on a frequent, daily basis. However, given time and resources, one can effectively calculate an outcome with a utilitarian based ethical theory, thus, it is somewhat a useful tool. This is due to the early work of Bentham and the hedonic calculus; the first ‘scientific’ way of calculating pleasure, which shaped the future of moral dilemma solving.