Utilitarianism is a moral theory which is dictated by the \u201cgreatest happiness
principle.\u201d That is, that the best course of action is the one which results in the
greatest happiness for all humanity. Kantian ethics on the other hand put individual
welfare before the greater good, that is, people are never used as a means to an end.
Each moral theory can be appreciated as best for some situations but neither can be
seen as best without exception.
Utilitarianism is divided into two categories: act (or classical) utilitarianism and rule
(or indirect) utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism looks at the act to determine what is
morally right whereas with rule utilitarianism there are a set of rules which are stuck
by to determine what is morally right. According to rule utilitarianism we learn from
experience the kinds of actions that, in the long run, contribute most to human
happiness. Rule utilitarianism is exposed to specific cases where instinctive human
ethics may cause some non-utilitarian considerations to influence the way that you
think. \u201cTwo-level utilitarianism\u201d is a system of beliefs saying we can use normal,
everyday moral thinking for the most part because experience has taught human
beings the kinds of ways of behaving that, in general, lead to happiness. Rule
utilitarianism is a much stricter methodology than two-level utilitarianism as it relies
on a set out plan of how to judge what is morally right (with the \u201cgreatest happiness
principle\u201d) whereas two-level utilitarianism is much more open minded looking at
specific cases and primarily using past experiences to judge what is morally right.
Ideal utilitarianism is not always good to promote some of the things that any given
version of the theory might consider valuable in themselves. Since classical
utilitarianism says that wedo pursue our own happiness anyway, it makes no senses
to think the theory ought to provide a reason why each of usshould pursue our own
happiness. However, it is not true that we always pursue the things which ideal
utilitarianism claims are intrinsically good. The idea that the best course of action
taken is what brings the greatest happiness is the product of psychological hedonism:
the belief that all humans seek pleasure and shun pain.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is best known as the man who founded utilitarianism,
he said that all pleasures are commensurable, that they are comparable with one
another in the same terms, namely, pleasure. Bentham devised the \u201cfelicific calculus\u201d
\u2013 a calculation of pleasures and pains. This featured:
3. Certainty or uncertainty
4. Propinquity or remoteness
5. Fecundity, that is, the chance of a pleasure producing other pleasures and the
chance of pain producing other pains.
6. Purity, that is the number of people sharing in the pleasure or pain.
Example: A rich man wins a large sum of money. He has no need or desire for it so he
decides he will either give it to his girlfriend (who is also rich) as a gift or to the Red
Cross charity. The felicific calculus would find that giving the money to the charity
would the ideal course of action as it results in the greatest happiness.
John Stuart Mill argued that there is a distinction in quality between pleasures, and he
thus distinguished between what he called \u201chigher\u201d and \u201clower\u201d pleasures. Mill\u2019s
basic idea was that pleasures of the mind and spirit \u2013 philosophy, poetry, conversation
and so on \u2013 were higher pleasures, whilst those of the body \u2013 eating, sleeping,
drinking and the like \u2013 were lower pleasures.
Utilitarianism does not seem biased to any particular religion unlike other traditional
moral systems of methodology. The theory seems very much like a common sense
approach and relates to the modern view that everyone should be treated equally. Its
central principle is happiness to the greatest extent possible, which strongly relates to
the modern view that kindness towards others is very important. Many argue that
utilitarianism is absurdly demanding. To see this, consider the following example:
Suppose you would like to eat an ice cream. Now consider that there are people in the
world with insufficient clean drinking water, let alone luxuries such as ice cream. If
you were to give your money to Oxfam or some other similar charity to help provide
drinking water to those without it then you would surely be creating more happiness.
Utilitarianism also does not recognise the special bonds people have in families or in
relationships with others. Many philosophers think that utilitarianism does not have a
proper understanding of the notion of obligation. Some philosophers object to
utilitarianism on the ground that it seems willing to countenance the use of individuals
as a mere means to increase the happiness of the world. It seems that utilitarianism
fails to take seriously our ordinary conceptions of justice because it claims that in
some cases it is right to \u201cpunish\u201d the innocent.
Kant\u2019s anti-naturalistic, anti-utilitarian ethical theory argued that human beings could
autonomously use their reason in order to determine whether an action was morally
good. By expressing the principles that underlie individual actions in terms of maxims
and seeing if they could be successfully universalised to group or societal levels, Kant
argued that we could work out for ourselves which actions counted as moral ones and
therefore what duties we should have. If one could find contradictions in such
attempts to universalise, then the action would be considered immoral and should not
With his Categorical Imperative, Immanuel Kant argued that moral acts are based
upon general principles that apply unconditionally. They are done out of a sense of
duty, irrespective of the influence of emotion or the consequences of the act itself.
Kant\u2019s ideas are often argued to be of limited value as a guide to moral conduct. In
particular his theory is criticised on account of its:
1. Simplistic model of causality, which examines action solely in terms of intention;
2. Omission of any consideration of emotion as a motivation for action;
3. Use of maxims, which it is argued are an impoverished way to express moral
4. Belief that moral goodness is incompatible with the presence of contradiction;
5. Preference for the objective, a historical and unitary over the inter-subjective,
contingent and pluralist, a prejudice that seems to exclude any notion of innovation
and moral progress.
Actions that are always wrong give us what Kant calls our perfect duties: a perfect
duty is one to which there are no exceptions. Perfect duties in this sense are also
known as \u201cnarrow\u201d or \u201crigorous\u201d or \u201cnecessary\u201d duties. And it is in the case of such
duties that a contradiction in conception is said to have been generated when a maxim
is willed that breaches them. Kant wants the categorical imperitive to provide us also
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