Monday, December 9, 2013

Handout on utilitarianism (for A Level Religious Studies etc.)



Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham  [1748-1832], the father of utilitarianism, famously declared that

" . . . actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism – it says that only the consequences of an act are morally relevant.

Bentham says that the right thing to do in any given situation is to act to produce the happiest outcome – the happiest outcome  according to Bentham, is that which produces the most pleasure and the least pain.

Bentham himself developed a “felicific calculus” factors such as intensity and duration of pains and pleasures could be fed to calculate the right course of action.

A simple example of such a utilitarian calculation – should I steal that child’s sweets? Doing so might give me the pleasure of eating them. But it would deprive the child of the same pleasure and cause her considerable unhappiness to boot. On balance, stealing the sweets will cause less happiness than not stealing them. So the right thing to do, on this simple utilitarian calculation,  is not to steal the sweets.