UTILITARIANISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
It is not unusual for a politician to say that a piece of legislation was passed due to the fact that it did the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Perhaps you have heard someone justify their actions with the reasoning that it was “for the greater good.” This makes us wonder, what is the criteria for what makes a policy or action morally right? For many, personal morals and ethics are established through experiences and cultural upbringing; however, there are also various ethical frameworks and theories that have been developed throughout time to assist individuals in distinguishing actions as morally right or wrong.
Utilitarianism, one of the most recognised and influential moral theories, helps individuals in living a ‘good’ life as it reinforces the belief that the purpose of morality is to make life better, which can be done by increasing the amount of good things and decreasing the amount of bad things (Nathanson, 2018).
In this presentation, I will argue that the solution to a good life lies within the ethical code of utilitarianism, and consider how, by utilising this ethical framework, we are able to address important ethical issues in modern society, as well as provide us with meaning and contentment in our lives. To begin with, let’s explore the history and foundations of utilitarianism and address the reasoning behind why it was initially developed. Subsequently, the theory in itself will be described and also how it has further developed throughout time. Utilitarianism also offers a unique perspective on various moral and ethical matters, which I will investigate by focussing on the issue of capital punishment. Lastly, we will discuss how utilitarianism can be applied to our everyday lives in order to increase our happiness and pleasure, thus allowing us to live a good life.
Utilitarianism is the moral theory that states that the the level of morality of an action is determined by “the balance of good over evil that is produced by that action” (Pecorino, n.d.). The most important classical utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham and his protégée John Stuart Mill, both of which were renowned theorists and social reformers. Their fundamental motivation behind the development of utilitarianism was the desire to see change in the corrupt laws and social practices of the 19th century (Driver, 2014). In his 1789 work, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’, Bentham began with his personal definition of human nature:
“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.” (Hall, n.d.)
He stated that humans seek pleasure as well as the avoidance of pain, they “govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think”. He also promoted utilitarianism as the acceptable standard of right actions for individuals and governments; “acti...